Reversible Chemical Reactions: Definition & Examples

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Chemical reactions don't just go forwards; sometimes, they can go backwards. Learn what a reversible chemical reaction is, and see some examples of such reactions.

What Is a Reversible Chemical Reaction?

Some things are simply irreversible; you can't unscramble an egg or unbake a cake. But sometimes you can reuse parts to make something new, like taking a Lego house apart and building a Lego car. This is true with chemical reactions.

A chemical reaction is where a substance changes into another substance. One chemical reaction can involve multiple substances changing form. This happens because atoms are rearranging themselves into different structures. The chemicals you start with are called the reactants, and the chemicals you end with are called the products. Chemical reactions can be reversible or irreversible.

A reversible chemical reaction is a chemical reaction that can go in both directions; the reactants can change into the products, and the products can change back into the reactants. This happens continually until it reaches a point called equilibrium. That's when the two reactions going in opposite directions happen at the same rate and there is no longer any change to the amount of reactant and product. With a reversible reaction, you use a special kind of double arrow to show that the reaction is happening in both directions. It looks something like this:

The equilibrium symbol
The equilibrium symbol

Let's go through a few examples of reversible reactions.

Examples of Reversible Chemical Reactions

An important example of a reversible reaction is something called the Haber process. This is where nitrogen and hydrogen react together to form ammonia gas. The chemical reaction for the process looks like this:

Chemical equation for the Haber process
Chemical equation for the Haber process

The reason this is important is because ammonia is highly useful. We use it to create fertilizers, household cleaners, nylon, nitric acid, and explosives. The Haber process only happens at high temperatures, high pressures, and when iron is present as a catalyst. Since it's a reversible process, there will always be some nitrogen and hydrogen left over. That's part of why getting the conditions just right is important. It allows you to produce as much ammonia as possible.

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