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Limiting Reactant

Which substance will run out first in a reaction

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Limiting Reactant

Pancakes require a certain amount of ingredients

Credit: Courtesy of Renee Comet and the National Cancer Institute
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pancakes_%281%29.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Don’t you hate running out of cooking ingredients?

Cooking is a great example of everyday chemistry. In order to correctly follow a recipe, a cook needs to make sure that he has plenty of all the necessary ingredients in order to make his dish. Let us suppose that you are deciding to make some pancakes for a large group of people. The recipe on the box indicates that the following ingredients are needed for each batch of pancakes:

1 cup of pancake mix

34 cup milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Now you check the pantry and the refrigerator and see that you have the following ingredients available:

2 boxes of pancake mix (8 cups)

Half gallon of milk (4 cups)

2 eggs

Full bottle of vegetable oil (about 3 cups)

The question that you must ask is: How many batches of pancakes can I make? The answer is two. Even though you have enough pancake mix, milk, and oil to make many more batches of pancakes, you are limited by the fact that you only have two eggs. As soon as you have made two batches of pancakes, you will be out of eggs and your “reaction” will be complete.

Limiting Reactant

For a chemist, the balanced chemical equation is the recipe that must be followed. As you have seen earlier, the Haber process is a reaction in which nitrogen gas is combined with hydrogen gas to form ammonia. The balanced equation is shown below.


We know that the coefficients of the balanced equation tell us the mole ratio that is required for this reaction to occur. One mole of N2 will react with three moles of H2 to form two moles of NH3.

Now let us suppose that a chemist were to react three moles of N2 with six moles of H2 (see Figure below).

Reaction of hydrogen and nitrogen with a limiting reagent

Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Christopher Auyeung
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Reaction in presence of limiting reagent.[Figure2]

So what happened in this reaction? The chemist started with 3 moles of N2. You may think of this as being 3 times as much as the “recipe” (the balanced equation) requires since the coefficient for the N2 is a 1. However, the 6 moles of H2 that the chemist started with is only two times as much as the “recipe” requires, since the coefficient for the H2 is a 3 and 3 × 2 = 6. So the hydrogen gas will be completely used up while there will be 1 mole of nitrogen gas left over after the reaction is complete. Finally, the reaction will produce 4 moles of NH3 because that is also two times as much as shown in the balanced equation. The overall reaction that occurred in words:

2 mol N2+6 mol H24 mol NH3

All the amounts are doubled from the original balanced equation.

The limiting reactant (or limiting reagent) is the reactant that determines the amount of product that can be formed in a chemical reaction. The reaction proceeds until the limiting reactant is completely used up. In our example above, the H2 is the limiting reactant. The excess reactant (or excess reagent) is the reactant that is initially present in a greater amount than will eventually be reacted. In other words, there is always excess reactant left over after the reaction is complete. In the above example, the N2 is the excess reactant.


  • The amount of limiting reactant determines how much product will be formed in a chemical reaction.


  1. In the Haber reaction illustrated above, how do we know that hydrogen is the limiting reactant?
  2. What if hydrogen were left over?
  3. Which material would be limiting if no hydrogen or nitrogen were left over?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Courtesy of Renee Comet and the National Cancer Institute; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pancakes_%281%29.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Christopher Auyeung; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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