A chemical reaction is a process that leads to the transformation of one set of chemical substances to another. Classically, chemical reactions encompass changes that only involve the positions of electrons in the forming and breaking of chemical bonds between atoms, with no change to the nuclei (no change to the elements present), and can often be described by a chemical equation. Nuclear chemistry is a sub-discipline of chemistry that involves the chemical reactions of unstable and radioactive elements where both electronic and nuclear changes may occur.
The substance (or substances) initially involved in a chemical reaction are called reactants or reagents. Chemical reactions are usually characterized by a chemical change, and they yield one or more products, which usually have properties different from the reactants. Reactions often consist of a sequence of individual sub-steps, the so-called elementary reactions, and the information on the precise course of action is part of the reaction mechanism. Chemical reactions are described with chemical equations, which symbolically present the starting materials, end products, and sometimes intermediate products and reaction conditions.
Chemical reactions happen at a characteristic reaction rate at a given temperature and chemical concentration. Typically, reaction rates increase with increasing temperature because there is more thermal energy available to reach the activation energy necessary for breaking bonds between atoms.
Reactions may proceed in the forward or reverse direction until they go to completion or reach equilibrium. Reactions that proceed in the forward direction to approach equilibrium are often described as spontaneous, requiring no input of free energy to go forward. Non-spontaneous reactions require input of free energy to go forward (examples include charging a battery by applying an external electrical power source, or photosynthesis driven by absorption of electromagnetic radiation in the form of sunlight).
Different chemical reactions are used in combinations during chemical synthesis in order to obtain a desired product. In biochemistry, a consecutive series of chemical reactions (where the product of one reaction is the reactant of the next reaction) form metabolic pathways. These reactions are often catalyzed by protein enzymes. Enzymes increase the rates of biochemical reactions, so that metabolic syntheses and decompositions impossible under ordinary conditions can occur at the temperatures and concentrations present within a cell.
The general concept of a chemical reaction has been extended to reactions between entities smaller than atoms, including nuclear reactions, radioactive decays, and reactions between elementary particles as described by quantum field theory.
Chemical reactions such as combustion in fire, fermentation and the reduction of ores to metals were known since antiquity. Initial theories of transformation of materials were developed by Greek philosophers, such as the Four-Element Theory of Empedocles stating that any substance is composed of the four basic elements – fire, water, air and earth. In the Middle Ages, chemical transformations were studied by Alchemists. They attempted, in particular, to convert lead into gold, for which purpose they used reactions of lead and lead-copper alloys with sulfur.
The production of chemical substances that do not normally occur in nature has long been tried, such as the synthesis of sulfuric and nitric acids attributed to the controversial alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān. The process involved heating of sulfate and nitrate minerals such as copper sulfate, alum and saltpeter. In the 17th century, Johann Rudolph Glauber produced hydrochloric acid and sodium sulfate by reacting sulfuric acid and sodium chloride. With the development of the lead chamber process in 1746 and the Leblanc process, allowing large-scale production of sulfuric acid and sodium carbonate, respectively, chemical reactions became implemented into the industry. Further optimization of sulfuric acid technology resulted in the contact process in 1880s, and the Haber process was developed in 1909–1910 for ammonia synthesis.
From the 16th century, researchers including Jan Baptist van Helmont, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton tried to establish theories of the experimentally observed chemical transformations. The phlogiston theory was proposed in 1667 by Johann Joachim Becher. It postulated the existence of a fire-like element called "phlogiston", which was contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion. This proved to be false in 1785 by Antoine Lavoisier who found the correct explanation of the combustion as reaction with oxygen from the air.〔Brock, pp. 34–55〕
Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac recognized in 1808 that gases always react in a certain relationship with each other. Based on this idea and the atomic theory of John Dalton, Joseph Proust had developed the law of definite proportions, which later resulted in the concepts of stoichiometry and chemical equations.〔Brock, pp. 104–107〕
Regarding the organic chemistry, it was long believed that compounds obtained from living organisms were too complex to be obtained synthetically. According to the concept of vitalism, organic matter was endowed with a "vital force" and distinguished from inorganic materials. This separation was ended however by the synthesis of urea from inorganic precursors by Friedrich Wöhler in 1828. Other chemists who brought major contributions to organic chemistry include Alexander William Williamson with his synthesis of ethers and Christopher Kelk Ingold, who, among many discoveries, established the mechanisms of substitution reactions.
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