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20.4: Free Energy

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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A steam train converts free energy into mechanical energy

All aboard!

The steam engine pictured above is slowly going out of style, but is still a picturesque part of the modern railroad. The water in a boiler is heated by a fire (usually fueled by coal) and turned to steam. This steam then pushes the pistons that drive the wheels of the train. It is the pressure created by the steam which allows work to be done in moving the train.

Free Energy

Many chemical reactions and physical processes release energy that can be used to do other things. When the fuel in a car is burned, some of the released energy is used to power the vehicle. Free energy is energy that is available to do work. Spontaneous reactions release free energy as they proceed. Recall that the determining factors for spontaneity of a reaction are the enthalpy and entropy changes that occur for the system. The free energy change of a reaction is a mathematical combination of the enthalpy change and the entropy change.


The symbol for free energy is G, in honor of American scientist Josiah Gibbs (1839-1903), who made many contributions to thermodynamics. The change in Gibbs free energy is equal to the change in enthalpy minus the mathematical product of the change in entropy multiplied by the Kelvin temperature. Each thermodynamic quantity in the equation is for substances in their standard states. The usual units for ΔH is kJ/mol, while ΔS is often reported in J/K • mol. It is necessary to change the units for ΔS to kJ/K • mol, so that the calculation of ΔG is in kJ/mol.

A spontaneous reaction is one that releases free energy, and so the sign of ΔG must be negative. Since both ΔH and ΔS can be either positive or negative, depending on the characteristics of the particular reaction, there are four different general outcomes for ΔG and these are outlined in Table below:

Enthalpy, Entropy, and Free Energy Changes
− value (exothermic) + value (disordering) always negative
+ value (endothermic) + value (disordering) negative at higher temperatures
− value (exothermic) − value (ordering) negative at lower temperatures
+ value (endothermic) − value (ordering) never negative

Keep in mind that the temperature in the Gibbs free energy equation is the Kelvin temperature and so can only be positive. When ΔH is negative and ΔS is positive, the sign of ΔG will always be negative, and the reaction will be spontaneous at all temperatures. This corresponds to both driving forces being in favor of product formation. When ΔH is positive and ΔS is negative, the sign of ΔG will always be positive, and the reaction can never be spontaneous. This corresponds to both driving forces working against product formation.

When one driving force favors the reaction, but the other does not, it is the temperature that determines the sign of ΔG. Consider first an endothermic reaction (positive ΔH) that also displays an increase in entropy (positive ΔS). It is the entropy term that favors the reaction. Therefore, as the temperature increases, the TΔS term in the Gibbs free energy equation will begin to predominate and ΔG will become negative. A common example of a process which falls into this category is the melting of ice. At a relatively low temperature (below 273 K), the melting is not spontaneous because the positive ΔH term “outweighs” the TΔS term. When the temperature rises above 273 K, the process becomes spontaneous because the larger T value has tipped the sign of ΔG over to being negative.

When the reaction is exothermic (negative ΔH) but undergoes a decrease in entropy (negative ΔS), it is the enthalpy term that favors the reaction. In this case, a spontaneous reaction is dependent upon the TΔS term being small relative to the ΔH term, so that ΔG is negative. The freezing of water is an example of this type of process. It is spontaneous only at a relatively low temperature. Above 273 K, the larger TΔS value causes the sign of ΔG to be positive, and freezing does not occur.




  • Free energy is defined.
  • Relationships between enthalpy, entropy, and free energy are described.


  1. What do spontaneous reactions do?
  2. What are the units for ΔH?
  3. What are the units for ΔS?

Explore More

Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.






  1. What is another term for free energy?
  2. What happens to the total energy when the ball rolls down the slide?
  3. How does H change in a spontaneous reaction?
  4. How does S change in a spontaneous reaction?

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Jun 25, 2013
Last Modified:
Sep 11, 2016
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