Matter has specific characteristics. These are called properties. Now, these might be physical properties such as the appearance of a substance, or it might be a chemical property like that substance's potential to become something else. Since the difference between chemical and physical properties is sometimes hard to visualize, it can be helpful to break down each term into simple language.
Chemical properties can be the harder of the two terms to understand. In simple terms, a chemical property is a substance's potential to become something else. For example, wood is flammable. It can catch on fire and turn to ash. Flammability is a chemical property of wood. You might see this when you have a bonfire at your home.
What makes a chemical property so difficult to understand is the fact you can’t see it until it happens. For example, you can’t see wood turn to ash until you burn it. However, scientists work to measure the different chemical properties of a substance.
Flammability is one example of chemical properties, but it’s far from the only one. There are a lot of different chemical properties, but here are a few common examples.
- reactivity - how reactive a substance is with another substance
- toxicity - damage a substance might cause to something else
- oxidation state - the ability of a substance to oxidize
- chemical bonds - types of chemical bonds it forms
- electronegativity - ability of atoms to attract electrons
- chemical stability - how stable a chemical is in an environment
Whew, the hard one is out of the way. Now it is time to check out physical properties.
Physical properties are those that you can clearly see without any chemical changes. You don’t have to wait for them to happen. For example, salt is white. The white color is a physical property of salt. Physical properties can get a little tricky though. For example, gold's melting point is a physical property. It might seem like it's a chemical property, but gold is not changing when it melts. Instead, it’s just going from a solid to a liquid state.
Like a chemical property, there are a lot of different physical properties scientists use to classify a substance. Check out some different physical property examples.
- boiling/melting point
- malleability (ability to be formed like metal into sheets)
- conductivity of electricity
Keep chemical and physical properties simple by looking at this table.
Change in chemical composition
Observed properties; no chemical changes in matter
Chemical change takes place
No chemical change takes place
Change needed to be measured
No change needed to be measured
One surefire way to tell whether something is a physical or chemical property is to look at whether its chemical formula changes. For example, the chemical formula for water is H2O whether it is in a solid, liquid, or gas form.
However, if a chemical property is in play, then the formula will change. For example, when iron rusts, it undergoes the oxidation process. This means that iron (Fe) will undergo a change to become something else. In this case, when iron oxidizes it becomes iron III hydroxide, or Fe(OH)3.
Chemical and physical properties are ways that scientists classify a substance. The color or mass it has are physical properties. However, chemical properties are chemical changes a substance undergoes. Chemical properties are a bit tricky because you don’t know them until they happen. Keep learning about chemistry by exploring physical changes.