Chemical Synthesis: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Many materials are used when a building is constructed; a similar principle applies in science when a scientist constructs a chemical. Continue reading to learn about the process called chemical synthesis.

What Is Chemical Synthesis?

Have you ever strapped on a pair of roller skates and took a quick spin around a skating rink? You may have noticed that the roller skates are made of two main parts: the wheels and shoe.

Simple Illustration of Chemical Synthesis using Roller Skates
roller skate

Using a shoe and wheel to make a roller skate is a very simple version of a process called synthesis. Synthesis just refers to the ability to make something from different materials. In science, when working with chemicals we call this process chemical synthesis. Chemical synthesis involves the combination of two or more atoms (or molecules) to make a product. Given the number of different ways to combine these atoms (or molecules), there are an endless variety of chemical compounds that can be synthesized.

Chemical synthesis is a very useful technique. For example, a scientist studying biology can make a compound that targets nasty cancer cells. Or a chemical scientist may create a compound to understand how it behaves in nature or under certain conditions. But why do scientists need to synthesize chemicals?

Well, many chemical substances do not occur naturally. That is, we simply cannot go outside and collect a chemical compound of interest. Also, a wide variety of products we use and consume are made from synthesized chemicals that are thus made readily available, in large quantities. The fact that chemical synthesis gives us the ability to quickly and efficiently make these chemical compounds shows how important and valuable chemical synthesis is.

Nuts and Bolts of Chemical Synthesis

When performing a chemical synthesis reaction, there are a few things to consider. As shown in the illustration, there are two main parts to a chemical synthesis: reactant and product.

General Chemical Synthesis Reaction

During a chemical synthesis, we refer to the starting materials as the reactants. Think of the reactants as your building blocks; they are your atoms (or molecules) that are absolutely required to complete any chemical synthesis reaction. And as we will see shortly, the type of product made varies depending on the reactants.

When the atoms (or molecules) combine, they will form a product. What drives this ability to make a product, using reactants, is a chemical reaction. When you look at a formula (like the illustration above), you know that a reaction is occurring when you see an arrow. The arrow tells you that a process is driving the formation of a product using different starting materials, or reactants.

With chemical syntheses, these processes generally only go in one direction. That is, the arrow only points towards the formation of a product. However, in some instances you may encounter a double arrow.

Example Of A Chemical Reaction With A Double Arrow

This tells you that, although a compound is synthesized, this process is reversible. The reactants can be reformed. Thus, we say this type of chemical synthesis is at equilibrium when both the amounts of reactant and product are equal.

Chemical Synthesis in Action: Examples

Chemical synthesis can be a very complex or very simple process. It all depends on the starting materials, type of chemical reaction used, and of course, what the desired products are. To illustrate how chemical synthesis works, let's look at two examples.

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