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How to Identify States of Matter in a Chemical Formula

by Cara Batema

Chemical equations use chemical formulas to represent reactants that enter into a chemical reaction and products that form from a reaction. Chemical formulas are comprised of one or two letters to represent the type of atom present, as well as subscript numbers to indicate multiple atoms that form a molecule -- for example, the common formula H2O represents two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to form the water molecule. Molecules like H2O can be in various states of matter, so you need some additional information to determine which state of matter was involved in the equation.

Look for the notation (s), (l), (g) or (aq) in a chemical formula, regardless of whether it is in the context of an equation. This text tells you the state of matter of the molecule -- solid, liquid, gas or aqueous solution. The term aqueous solution refers to a substance dissolved in water. For example, NaCl(aq) is table salt dissolved in water. The letter in parentheses will always be after the chemical formula.

Look for context clues if no state of matter is written after the chemical formula. You might have a description of an equation, such as “two sodium atoms dissolve in water to produce aqueous sodium hydroxide and hydrogen gas.” You can discern the states of matter from the text.

Learn “rules” about common molecules that will likely be in one state of matter if no parenthetical state is notated. For example, if you know a substance is an ionic compound, you know it will likely be a solid because ionic compounds in their standard state, or 25 degrees Celsius and 1 atmosphere, are solids; an exception to this rule is the case when the ionic compound is dissolved in water. Precipitates in a reaction will always be solid. In combustion reactions, if a hydrocarbon burns with sufficient oxygen supply, carbon dioxide gas and water vapor are released as products.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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