There are three steps involved in writing a chemical equation. The first step is to decide which substances are the reactants and which are the products. For example, natural gas (cooking gas) burns in air, providing heat and producing no visible products. The natural gas is principally methane, and the portion of the air that reacts (supports combustion) is oxygen. These are the reactants. Products of the reaction are heat and two invisible gases, carbon dioxide and water vapor. We can now write the word equation methane + oxygen → carbon dioxide + water vapor + heat. The next step is to determine the correct formula for each substance and substitute it for the name. The equation now becomes CH4+O2→CO2+H2O. (A notation for heat is often omitted.)
The final step is to balance this equation. As the equation is now written, three oxygen atoms are produced from two, and four hydrogen atoms become only two. This cannot occur, since atoms are not created or destroyed in chemical reactions. The equation is already balanced for carbon, since there is one carbon atom on the reactant side and one carbon atom on the product side. There are four hydrogen atoms in the methane molecule on the reactant side, so there must be four hydrogen atoms in water molecules on the product side (since water is the only product containing hydrogen); thus there must be two water molecules, each containing two hydrogen atoms. The equation can now be written CH4+O2→CO2+2H2O. It is not yet balanced, since there are only two oxygen atoms shown as reactants and four as products. The equation is completely balanced by showing two oxygen molecules (four atoms) as reactants: CH4+2O2→CO2+2H2O.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.