formula weight, in chemistry, a quantity computed by multiplying the atomic weight (in atomic mass units) of each element in a formula by the number of atoms of that element present in the formula, and then adding all of these products together. For example, the formula weight of water (H2O) is two times the atomic weight of hydrogen plus one times the atomic weight of oxygen. Numerically, this is (2×1.00797)+(1×15.9994) = 2.01594+15.9994 = 18.01534. If the formula used in computing the formula weight is the molecular formula, the formula weight computed is the molecular weight. The percentage by weight of any atom or group of atoms in a compound can be computed by dividing the total weight of the atom (or group of atoms) in the formula by the formula weight and multiplying by 100. For example, the weight percentage of hydrogen in water is determined by taking two times the atomic weight of hydrogen, dividing it by the formula weight of water, and multiplying by 100. Numerically, this is 100×(2×1.00797)/18.01534 = 11.19% hydrogen in water by weight. Formula weights are especially useful in determining the relative weights of reagents and products in a chemical reaction. For example, it is known that two molecules of hydrogen gas, H2, react with one molecule of oxygen gas, O2, to form two molecules of water, H2O. This reaction may be represented by the chemical equation 2H2+O2→2H2O. The formula weight of hydrogen gas is 2.01594, that of oxygen gas 31.9998, and that of water 18.01534. Our chemical equation is numerically equivalent to 2×2.01594+31.9998 = 2×18.01534 or 4.03188+31.9998 = 36.03068 if the formula weight of each reactant is substituted for the formula of that reactant. From this equation we know, for example, that 4.03188 grams of hydrogen gas will react with 31.9998 grams of oxygen gas to yield 36.03068 grams of water. The relative proportions by weight of these reactants is the same in any reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to form water. These relative weights computed from the chemical equation are sometimes called equation weights.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.