Factors Affecting Reaction Rates

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the effects of chemical nature, physical state, temperature, concentration, and catalysis on reaction rates

The rates at which reactants are consumed and products are formed during chemical reactions vary greatly. We can identify five factors that affect the rates of chemical reactions: the chemical nature of the reacting substances, the state of subdivision (one large lump versus many small particles) of the reactants, the temperature of the reactants, the concentration of the reactants, and the presence of a catalyst.

The Chemical Nature of the Reacting Substances

The rate of a reaction depends on the nature of the participating substances. Reactions that appear similar may have different rates under the same conditions, depending on the identity of the reactants. For example, when small pieces of the metals iron and sodium are exposed to air, the sodium reacts completely with air overnight, whereas the iron is barely affected. The active metals calcium and sodium both react with water to form hydrogen gas and a base. Yet calcium reacts at a moderate rate, whereas sodium reacts so rapidly that the reaction is almost explosive.

The State of Subdivision of the Reactants

Except for substances in the gaseous state or in solution, reactions occur at the boundary, or interface, between two phases. Hence, the rate of a reaction between two phases depends to a great extent on the surface contact between them. A finely divided solid has more surface area available for reaction than does one large piece of the same substance. Thus a liquid will react more rapidly with a finely divided solid than with a large piece of the same solid. For example, large pieces of iron react slowly with acids; finely divided iron reacts much more rapidly (Figure 1). Large pieces of wood smolder, smaller pieces burn rapidly, and saw dust burns explosively.

This figure shows two photos labeled (a) and (b). Photo (a) shows the bottom of a test tube. The test tube is filled with a dark gas, and there is a dark substance and bubbles in the bottom. Photo (b) shows a rod and bubbles in a test tube similar to photo (a), but the gas in the test tube is not as dark.

Figure 1. (a) Iron powder reacts rapidly with dilute hydrochloric acid and produces bubbles of hydrogen gas because the powder has a large total surface area: 2Fe(s) + 6HCl(aq) ⟶ 2FeCl3(aq) + 3H2(g). (b) An iron nail reacts more slowly.

Watch this video to see the reaction of cesium with water in slow motion and a discussion of how the state of reactants and particle size affect reaction rates.

You can view the transcript for “Caesium in Water (slow motion) – Periodic Table of Videos” here (opens in new window).

Temperature of the Reactants

Chemical reactions typically occur faster at higher temperatures. Food can spoil quickly when left on the kitchen counter. However, the lower temperature inside of a refrigerator slows that process so that the same food remains fresh for days. We use a burner or a hot plate in the laboratory to increase the speed of reactions that proceed slowly at ordinary temperatures. In many cases, an increase in temperature of only 10 °C will approximately double the rate of a reaction in a homogeneous system.

Concentrations of the Reactants

The rates of many reactions depend on the concentrations of the reactants. Rates usually increase when the concentration of one or more of the reactants increases. For example, calcium carbonate (CaCO3) deteriorates as a result of its reaction with the pollutant sulfur dioxide. The rate of this reaction depends on the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air (Figure 2). An acidic oxide, sulfur dioxide combines with water vapor in the air to produce sulfurous acid in the following reaction:


Calcium carbonate reacts with sulfurous acid as follows:


In a polluted atmosphere where the concentration of sulfur dioxide is high, calcium carbonate deteriorates more rapidly than in less polluted air. Similarly, phosphorus burns much more rapidly in an atmosphere of pure oxygen than in air, which is only about 20% oxygen.

A photograph is shown of an angel statue. While some details of the statue, including facial features, are present, effects of weathering appear to be diminishing these features.

Figure 2. Statues made from carbonate compounds such as limestone and marble typically weather slowly over time due to the actions of water, and thermal expansion and contraction. However, pollutants like sulfur dioxide can accelerate weathering. As the concentration of air pollutants increases, deterioration of limestone occurs more rapidly. (credit: James P Fisher III)

Phosphorous burns rapidly in air, but it will burn even more rapidly if the concentration of oxygen in is higher. Watch this video to see an example. (Note that the video has no narration. You can access the audio description using the widget below the video.)

You can view the transcript for the audio description of “Phosphorus burning in atmosphere of pure oxygen” here (opens in new window).

The Presence of a Catalyst

Relatively dilute aqueous solutions of hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, are commonly used as topical antiseptics. Hydrogen peroxide decomposes to yield water and oxygen gas according to the equation:


Under typical conditions, this decomposition occurs very slowly. When dilute H2O2(aq) is poured onto an open wound, however, the reaction occurs rapidly and the solution foams because of the vigorous production of oxygen gas. This dramatic difference is caused by the presence of substances within the wound’s exposed tissues that accelerate the decomposition process. Substances that function to increase the rate of a reaction are called catalysts, a topic treated in greater detail later in this chapter.

Chemical reactions occur when molecules collide with each other and undergo a chemical transformation. Before physically performing a reaction in a laboratory, scientists can use molecular modeling simulations to predict how the parameters discussed above will influence the rate of a reaction. Use the PhET Reactions & Rates interactive to explore how temperature, concentration, and the nature of the reactants affect reaction rates.

Key Concepts and Summary

The rate of a chemical reaction is affected by several parameters. Reactions involving two phases proceed more rapidly when there is greater surface area contact. If temperature or reactant concentration is increased, the rate of a given reaction generally increases as well. A catalyst can increase the rate of a reaction by providing an alternative pathway that causes the activation energy of the reaction to decrease.

Try It

  1. Describe the effect of each of the following on the rate of the reaction of magnesium metal with a solution of hydrochloric acid: the molarity of the hydrochloric acid, the temperature of the solution, and the size of the pieces of magnesium.
  2. Explain why an egg cooks more slowly in boiling water in Denver than in New York City. (Hint: Consider the effect of temperature on reaction rate and the effect of pressure on boiling point.)
  3. Go to the PhET Reactions & Rates interactive. Use the Single Collision tab to represent how the collision between monatomic oxygen (O) and carbon monoxide (CO) results in the breaking of one bond and the formation of another. Pull back on the red plunger to release the atom and observe the results. Then, click on “Reload Launcher” and change to “Angled shot” to see the difference.
    1. What happens when the angle of the collision is changed?
    2. Explain how this is relevant to rate of reaction.
  4. In the PhET Reactions & Rates interactive, use the “Many Collisions” tab to observe how multiple atoms and molecules interact under varying conditions. Select a molecule to pump into the chamber. Set the initial temperature and select the current amounts of each reactant. Select “Show bonds” under Options. How is the rate of the reaction affected by concentration and temperature?
  5. In the PhET Reactions & Rates interactive, on the Many Collisions tab, set up a simulation with 15 molecules of A and 10 molecules of BC. Select “Show Bonds” under Options.
    1. Leave the Initial Temperature at the default setting. Observe the reaction. Is the rate of reaction fast or slow?
    2. Click “Pause” and then “Reset All,” and then enter 15 molecules of A and 10 molecules of BC once again. Select “Show Bonds” under Options. This time, increase the initial temperature until, on the graph, the total average energy line is completely above the potential energy curve. Describe what happens to the reaction.


catalyst: substance that increases the rate of a reaction without itself being consumed by the reaction