The Role of Energy in Chemical Reactions

One characteristic of a living organism is metabolism, which is the sum total of all of the chemical reactions that go on to maintain that organism's health and life. The bonding processes you have learned thus far are anabolic chemical reactions; that is, they form larger molecules from smaller molecules or atoms. But recall that metabolism can proceed in another direction: in catabolic chemical reactions, bonds between components of larger molecules break, releasing smaller molecules or atoms. Both types of reaction involve exchanges not only of matter, but of energy.

Chemical reactions require a sufficient amount of energy to cause the matter to collide with enough precision and force that old chemical bonds can be broken and new ones formed. In general, kinetic energy is the form of energy powering any type of matter in motion. Imagine you are building a brick wall. The energy it takes to lift and place one brick atop another is kinetic energy, the energy matter possesses because of its motion. Once the wall is in place, it stores potential energy. Potential energy is the energy of position, or the energy matter possesses because of the positioning or structure of its components. If the brick wall collapses, the stored potential energy is released as kinetic energy as the bricks fall.

In the human body, potential energy is stored in the bonds between atoms and molecules. Chemical energy is the form of potential energy in which energy is stored in chemical bonds. When those bonds are formed, chemical energy is invested, and when they break, chemical energy is released. Notice that chemical energy, like all energy, is neither created nor destroyed; rather, it is converted from one form to another. When you eat an energy bar before heading out the door for a hike, the honey, nuts, and other foods the bar contains are broken down and rearranged by your body into molecules that your muscle cells convert to kinetic energy.

Chemical reactions that release more energy than they absorb are characterized as exergonic. The catabolism of the foods in your energy bar is an example. Some of the chemical energy stored in the bar is absorbed into molecules your body uses for fuel, but some of it is released, for example, as heat. In contrast, chemical reactions that absorb more energy than they release are endergonic. These reactions require energy input, and the resulting molecule stores not only the chemical energy in the original components, but also the energy that fueled the reaction. Because energy is neither created nor destroyed, where does the energy needed for endergonic reactions come from? In many cases, it comes from exergonic reactions.


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