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Conservation of Mass

Mass of products equals mass of the reactants.

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Conservation of Mass

Screws and bolts demonstrate conservation of mass

Credit: Douglas Heriot
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dhdesign/3843848623/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Have you ever lost a screw?

The following situation happens all too often.  You have taken apart a piece of equipment to clean it up. When you put the equipment back together, somehow you have an extra screw or two.  Or you find out that a screw is missing that was a part of the original equipment.  In either case, you know something is wrong.  You expect to end up with the same amount of material that you started with, not with more or less than what you had originally.

Law of Conservation of Mass

By the late 1700s, chemists accepted the definition of an element as a substance that cannot be broken down into a simpler substance by ordinary chemical means.  It was also clear that elements combine with one another to form more complex substances called compounds.  The chemical and physical properties of these compounds are different than the properties of the elements from which they were formed.  There were questions about the details of these processes.

In the 1790s, a greater emphasis began to be placed on the quantitative analysis of chemical reactions.  Accurate and reproducible measurements of the masses of reacting elements and the compounds they form led to the formulation of several basic laws.  One of these is called the law of conservation of mass, which states that during a chemical reaction, the total mass of the products must be equal to the total mass of the reactants.  In other words, mass cannot be created or destroyed during a chemical reaction, but is always conserved.

As an example, consider the reaction between silver nitrate and sodium chloride.  These two compounds will dissolve in water to form silver chloride and sodium nitrate.  The silver chloride does not dissolve in water, so it forms a solid that we can filter off.  When we evaporate the water, we can recover the sodium nitrate formed.  If we react 58.5 grams of sodium chloride with 169.9 grams of silver nitrate, we start with 228.4 grams of materials.  After the reaction is complete and the materials separated, we find that we have formed 143.4 grams of silver chloride and 85.0 grams of sodium nitrate, giving us a total mass of 228.4 grams for the products.  So, the total mass of reactants equals the total mass of products, a proof of the law of conservation of mass.


  • The law of conservation of mass states that, during a chemical reaction, the total mass of the products must be equal to the total mass of the reactants.


  1. State the Law of Conservation of Mass.
  2. What does this law mean?

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  1. [1]^ Credit: Douglas Heriot; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dhdesign/3843848623/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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