SAT Subject Test Chemistry




Rates of Chemical Reactions

These skills are usually tested on the SAT Subject Test in Chemistry. You should be able to …

• Explain how each of the following factors affect the rate of a chemical reaction: nature of the reactants, surface area exposed, concentrations, temperature, and the presence of a catalyst.

• Draw reaction diagrams with and without a catalyst.

• Explain the Law of Mass Action.

• Describe the relationship between reaction mechanisms and rates of reaction.

This chapter will review and strengthen these skills. Be sure to do the Practice Exercises at the end of the chapter.

The measurement of reaction rate is based on the rate of appearance of a product or disappearance of a reactant. It is usually expressed in terms of a change in concentration of one of the participants per unit time.

Experiments have shown that for most reactions the concentrations of all participants change most rapidly at the beginning of the reaction; that is, the concentration of the products shows the greatest rate of increase, and the concentrations of the reactants the highest rate of decrease, at this point. This means that the rate of a reaction changes with time. Therefore a rate must be identified with a specific time.


Five important factors control the rate of a chemical reaction. These are summarized below.


Know the factors that affect reaction rates.

1.   The nature of the reactants. In chemical reactions, some bonds break and others form. Therefore, the rates of chemical reactions should be affected by the nature of the bonds in the reacting substances. For example, reactions between ions in an aqueous solution may take place in a fraction of a second. Thus, the reaction between silver nitrate and sodium chloride is very fast. The white silver chloride precipitate appears immediately. In reactions where many covalent bonds must be broken, reaction usually takes place slowly at room temperatures. The decomposition of hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen happens slowly at room temperatures. In fact, about 17 minutes is required for half the peroxide in a 0.50 M solution to decompose.

2.   The surface area exposed. Since most reactions depend on the reactants coming into contact, the surface exposed proportionally affects the rate of the reaction.

3.   The concentrations. The reaction rate is usually proportional to the concentrations of the reactants. The usual dependence of the reaction rate on the concentration of the reactants can simply be explained by theorizing that, if more molecules or ions of the reactant are in the reaction area, then there is a greater chance that more reactions will occur. This idea is further developed in the collision theory discussed below.

4.   The temperature. A temperature increase of 10°C above room temperature usually causes the reaction rate to double or triple. The basis for this generality is that, as the temperature increases, the average kinetic energy of the particles involved increases. As a result the particles move faster and have a greater probability of hitting other reactant particles. Because the particles have more energy, they can cause an effective collision, resulting in the chemical reaction that forms the product substance.

5.   The presence of a catalyst. It is a substance that increases or decreases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change. The catalyst provides an alternative pathway by which the reaction can proceed and in which the activation energy is lower. It thus increases the rate at which the reaction comes to completion or equilibrium. Generally, the term is used for a substance that increases reaction rate (a positive catalyst). Some reactions can be slowed down by negative catalysts.