Applications with Rational Equations

Learning Outcomes

  • Solve a rational formula for a specified variable
  • Solve an application using a formula that must be solved for a specified variable.
  • Solve applications by defining and solving rational equations.

Rational Formulas

Rational formulas can be useful tools for representing real-life situations and for finding answers to real problems. You’ll see later in this module that certain equations representing relationships called direct, inverse, and joint variation are examples of rational formulas that can model many real-life situations.

When solving problems using rational formulas, after identifying the particular formula that represents the relationship between the known and unknown quantities, it is often helpful to then solve the formula for a specified variable. This is sometimes called solving a literal equation.


The formula for finding the density of an object is [latex] D=\frac{m}{v}[/latex], where D is the density, m is the mass of the object, and v is the volume of the object. Rearrange the formula to solve for the mass (m) and then for the volume (v).


The formula for finding the volume of a cylinder is [latex]V=\pi{r^{2}}h[/latex], where V is the volume, r is the radius, and h is the height of the cylinder. Rearrange the formula to solve for the height (h).

Watch the following video for more examples of solving for a particular variable in a formula, a literal equation.


A work problem is a useful real-world application involving literal equations. Let’s say you’d like to calculate how long it will take different people working at different speeds to finish a task.  You may recall the formula that relates distance, rate and time, [latex]d=rt[/latex]. A similar formula relates work performed to a work-rate and time spent working: [latex]W=rt[/latex]. The amount of work done [latex]W[/latex] is the product of the rate of work [latex]r[/latex] and the time spent working [latex]t[/latex]. Using algebra, you can write the work formula [latex]3[/latex] ways:


Solved for time [latex]t[/latex] the formula is [latex] t=\frac{W}{r}[/latex] (divide both sides by r).

Solved for rate [latex]r[/latex] the formula is [latex] r=\frac{W}{t}[/latex](divide both sides by t).

Rational equations can be used to solve a variety of problems that involve rates, times, and work. Using rational expressions and equations can help you answer questions about how to combine workers or machines to complete a job on schedule.

Some work problems include multiple machines or people working on a project together for the same amount of time but at different rates. In this case, you can add their individual work rates together to get a total work rate.


Myra takes [latex]2[/latex] hours to plant [latex]50[/latex] flower bulbs. Francis takes [latex]3[/latex] hours to plant [latex]45[/latex] flower bulbs. Working together, how long should it take them to plant [latex]150[/latex] bulbs?

Other work problems take a different perspective. You can calculate how long it will take one person to do a job alone when you know how long it takes people working together to complete the job.


Joe and John are planning to paint a house together. John thinks that if he worked alone, it would take him [latex]3[/latex] times as long as it would take Joe to paint the entire house. Working together, they can complete the job in [latex]24[/latex] hours. How long would it take each of them, working alone, to complete the job?

As shown above, many work problems can be represented by the equation [latex] \dfrac{t}{a}+\dfrac{t}{b}=1[/latex], where [latex]t[/latex] represents the quantity of time two people, [latex]A \text{ and } B[/latex], complete the job working together, [latex]a[/latex] is the amount of time it takes person [latex]A[/latex] to do the job, and [latex]b[/latex] is the amount of time it takes person [latex]B[/latex] to do the job. The [latex]1[/latex] on the right hand side represents [latex]1[/latex] job, the total work done—in this case, the work was to paint a house.

The key idea here is to figure out each worker’s individual rate of work. Then, once those rates are identified, add them together, multiply by the time t, set it equal to the amount of work done, and solve the rational equation.

If person [latex]A[/latex] works at a rate of [latex]1[/latex] job every [latex]a[/latex] hours, and person [latex]B[/latex] works at a rate of [latex]1[/latex] job every [latex]b[/latex] hours, and if [latex]t[/latex] represents the total amount of time it takes to paint [latex]1[/latex] house, we have

[latex]\begin{align}W&= \left(r_1 + r_2\right)t \\ 1 &= \left(\dfrac{1}{a}+\dfrac{1}{b}\right)t \\ 1 &= \dfrac{t}{a}+\dfrac{t}{b}\end{align}[/latex]

Watch the following video for an example of finding the total time given two people working together at known rates.

The following video shows an example of finding one person’s work rate given a known combined work rate.


Mixtures are made of ratios of different substances that may include chemicals, foods, water, or gases. There are many different situations where mixtures may occur both in nature and as a means to produce a desired product or outcome. For example, chemical spills, manufacturing, and even biochemical reactions involve mixtures. Mixture problems become mathematically interesting when components of the mixture are added at different rates and concentrations. The next example shows how to define an equation that models the concentration (a ratio) of sugar to water in a large mixing tank over time.


A large mixing tank currently contains [latex]100[/latex] gallons of water into which [latex]5[/latex] pounds of sugar have been mixed. A tap will open pouring [latex]10[/latex] gallons per minute of water into the tank at the same time sugar is poured into the tank at a rate of [latex]1[/latex] pound per minute. Find the concentration (pounds per gallon) of sugar in the tank after [latex]12[/latex] minutes. Is that a greater concentration than at the beginning?

The following video gives another example of how to use rational functions to model mixing.