Compounds are formed from simpler substances by chemical reaction. Some compounds can be formed directly from their constituent elements, e.g., water from hydrogen and oxygen: 2H2 + O2 → 2H2O. Other compounds are formed by reaction of an element with another compound; e.g., sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is formed (and hydrogen gas released) by the reaction of sodium metal with water: 2Na + 2H2O → 2NaOH + H2↑. Compounds are also made by reaction of other compounds; e.g., sodium hydroxide reacts with hydrogen chloride (HCl) to form sodium chloride and water: HCl + NaOH → NaCl + H2O. Complex molecules such as proteins are formed by a series of reactions involving elements and simple compounds.
Compounds can be decomposed by chemical means into elements or simpler compounds. Water is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. Candle wax, a mixture of hydrocarbons, is changed in the candle flame by combustion (with oxygen) to a mixture of the simpler compounds carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. Life is based on numerous reactions in which energy is stored and released as compounds are produced and decomposed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.