The Arrhenius equation explains why chemical reactions generally go much faster when you heat them up. The equation was actually first given by the Dutch physical chemist JH van ‘t Hoff in 1884, but it was the Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius (pictured above) who in 1889 interpreted the equation in terms of activation energy, thereby opening up an important new dimension to the study of reaction rates.

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**Temperature and reaction rate**

The systematic study of chemical kinetics can be said to have begun in 1850 with Ludwig Wilhelmy’s pioneering work on the kinetics of sucrose inversion. Right from the start, it was realized that reaction rates showed an appreciable dependence on temperature, but it took four decades before real progress was made towards quantitative understanding of the phenomenon.

In 1889, Arrhenius penned a classic paper in which he considered eight sets of published data on the effect of temperature on reaction rates. In each case he showed that the rate constant could be represented as an explicit function of the absolute temperature:

where both A and C are constants for the particular reaction taking place at temperature T. In his paper, Arrhenius listed the eight sets of published data together with the equations put forward by their respective authors to express the temperature dependence of the rate constant. In one case, the equation – stated in logarithmic form – was identical to that proposed by Arrhenius

where T is the absolute temperature and a and b are constants. This equation was published five years before Arrhenius’ paper in a book entitled *Études de Dynamique Chimique*. The author was J. H. van ‘t Hoff.

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**Dynamic equilibrium**

In the *Études* of 1884, van ‘t Hoff compiled a contemporary encyclopædia of chemical kinetics. It is an extraordinary work, containing all that was previously known as well as a great deal that was entirely new. At the start of the section on chemical equilibrium he states (without proof) the thermodynamic equation, sometimes called the van ‘t Hoff isochore, which quantifies the displacement of equilibrium with temperature. In modern notation it reads:

where K_{c} is the equilibrium constant expressed in terms of concentrations, ΔH is the heat of reaction and T is the absolute temperature. In a footnote to this famous and thermodynamically exact equation, van ‘t Hoff builds a bridge from thermodynamics to kinetics by advancing the idea that a chemical reaction can take place in both directions, and that the thermodynamic equilibrium constant K_{c} is in fact the quotient of the kinetic velocity constants for the forward (k_{1}) and reverse (k_{-1}) reactions

Substituting this quotient in the original equation leads immediately to

van ‘t Hoff then argues that the rate constants will be influenced by two different energy terms E_{1} and E_{-1}, and splits the above into two equations

where the two energies are such that E_{1} – E_{-1} = ΔH

In the *Études*, van ‘t Hoff recognized that ΔH might or might not be temperature independent, and considered both possibilities. In the former case, he could integrate the equation to give the solution

From a starting point in thermodynamics, van ‘t Hoff engineered this kinetic equation through a characteristically self-assured thought process. And it was this equation that the equally self-assured Svante Arrhenius seized upon for his own purposes, expanding its application to explain the results of other researchers, and enriching it with his own idea for how the equation should be interpreted.

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**Activation energy**

It is a well-known result of the kinetic theory of gases that the average kinetic energy per mole of gas (E_{K}) is given by

Since the only variable on the RHS is the absolute temperature T, we can conclude that doubling the temperature will double the average kinetic energy of the molecules. This set Arrhenius thinking, because the eight sets of published data in his 1889 paper showed that the effect of temperature on the rates of chemical processes was generally much too large to be explained on the basis of how temperature affects the average kinetic energy of the molecules.

The clue to solving this mystery was provided by James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1860 had worked out the distribution of molecular velocities from the laws of probability. Maxwell’s distribution law enables the fraction of molecules possessing a kinetic energy exceeding some arbitrary value E to be calculated.

It is convenient to consider the distribution of molecular velocities in two dimensions instead of three, since the distribution law so obtained gives very similar results and is much simpler to apply. At absolute temperature T, the proportion of molecules for which the kinetic energy exceeds E is given by

where n is the number of molecules with kinetic energy greater than E, and N is the total number of molecules. This is exactly the exponential expression which occurs in the velocity constant equation derived by van ‘t Hoff from thermodynamic principles, which Arrhenius showed could be fitted to temperature dependence data from several published sources.

Compared with the average kinetic energy calculation, this exponential expression yields very different results. At 1000K, the fraction of molecules having a greater energy than, say, 80 KJ is 0.0000662, while at 2000K the fraction is 0.00814. So the temperature change which doubles the number of molecules with the average energy will increase the number of molecules with E > 80 KJ by a factor of more than a hundred.

Here was the clue Arrhenius was seeking to explain why increased temperature had such a marked effect on reaction rate. He reasoned it was because molecules needed sufficiently more energy than the average – the activation energy E – to undergo reaction, and that the fraction of these molecules in the reaction mix was an exponential function of temperature.

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**The meaning of A**

But back to the Arrhenius equation

I have always thought that calling the constant A the ‘pre-exponential factor’ is a singularly pointless label. One could equally write the equation as

and call it the ‘post-exponential factor’. The position of A in relation to the exponential factor has no relevance.

A clue to the proper meaning of A is to note that e^(–E/RT) is dimensionless. The units of A are therefore the same as the units of k. But what are the units of k?

The answer depends on whether one’s interest area is kinetics or thermodynamics. In kinetics, the concentration of chemical species present at equilibrium is generally expressed as molar concentration, giving rise to a range of possibilities for the units of the velocity constant k.

In thermodynamics however, the dimensions of k are uniform. This is because the chemical potential of reactants and products in any arbitrarily chosen state is expressed in terms of activity a, which is defined as a ratio in relation to a standard state and is therefore dimensionless.

When the arbitrarily chosen conditions represent those for equilibrium, the equilibrium constant K is expressed in terms of reactant (aA + bB + …) and product (mM + nN + …) activities

where the subscript e indicates that the activities are those for the system at equilibrium.

As students we often substitute molar concentrations for activities, since in many situations the activity of a chemical species is approximately proportional to its concentration. But if an equation is arrived at from consideration of the thermodynamic equilibrium constant K – as the Arrhenius equation was – it is important to remember that the associated concentration terms are strictly dimensionless and so the reaction rate, and therefore the velocity constant k, and therefore A, has the units of frequency (t^-1).

OK, so back again to the Arrhenius equation

We have determined the dimensions of A; now let us turn our attention to the role of the dimensionless exponential factor. The values this term may take range between 0 and 1, and specifically when E = 0, e^(–E/RT) = 1. This allows us to assign a physical meaning to A since when E = 0, A = k. We can think of A as the velocity constant when the activation energy is zero – in other words when each collision between reactant molecules results in a reaction taking place.

Since there are zillions of molecular collisions taking place every second just at room temperature, any reaction in these circumstances would be uber-explosive. So the exponential term can be seen as a modifier of A whose value reflects the range of reaction velocity from extremely slow at one end of the scale (high E/low T) to extremely fast at the other (low E/high T).

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P Mander September 2016