Key Concepts in Chemistry: Mastering the Basics

For some people, passing chemistry seems like an insurmountable feat. Just say the word “chemistry” in front of the wrong person, and you might find yourself with someone who’s suddenly become a nervous wreck. This need not be the case! Chemistry is NOT a difficult subject, once you take the time to master the basics. Acing your General Chemistry class comes down to a few things:

-Being comfortable with unit conversions -Understanding the concept of moles, molecular weight and Molarity -Understanding what the question is asking/key terms

And that’s really it. The reason why people get so upset about chemistry, I believe, is because they never quite understood those first few introductory lessons, and they carry the burden of their lack of knowledge all the way through the course. The majority of students I tutor in chemistry are stuck because they do not know how to convert centimeters to meters or grams to moles! What’s worse, I find most professors’ way of explaining these crucial concepts very confusing. Which is a shame, because if you can’t balance an equation now, or you never learn what chemical species has what charge, you’re doomed to make mistakes throughout the rest of the course. That’s why it’s SO IMPORTANT to master these skills, and be on top of your game. Presented to you, the chemistry student, is a how-to guide on all the key concepts and mathematics of what you’ll encounter throughout your General Chemistry course. I hope that you find it rather useful!

Unit Conversions: A Review
Biggest problem I see chemistry students struggle with? It has to be, hands down, unit conversions. So let’s settle the score once and for all. A “unit” of something (it can be anything!) can be seen as the standardized quantity of that something. We say a unit is “standardized” when its value is known universally. Ex: An inch is a unit that measures the length of something. You can tell someone that you need 6 inches of fabric, and they would understand what you’re asking for. So that is the first idea about a unit: Is that it is a standard measurement that is understood by all who encounter it. Scientists (and chemists) work with standard units of measurement so that they can communicate with one another no matter what the scientists’ specialization, language, country of origin, etc. There are several standardized units that chemists must familiarize themselves’ with in order to solve whatever problem they are working on. Among these are units of distance, mass, pressure, temperature, time, and volume. All of these units are based on Metric system. If you can understand how to convert one type of unit in the Metric system then you will be able to convert any and all other units in the Metric system. The Metric system’s units are separated from each other by powers of ten. The best way to illustrate this is to introduce you the different prefixes of the Metric system: KHDudcm

These letters stand for: K – kilo (factor of 1000) H – hecto (factor of 100) D – deca (factor of 10) u –base unit (factor of 1) d – deci (factor of 0.1) c – centi (factor of 0.01) m – milli (factor of 0.001)

A great way to memorize the order of these prefixes (in descending magnitude) is with the acronym “King Henry’s Drunken uncle drinks chocolate milk.” When you are asked to convert units, you should always start by writing down the order that the units are converted: KHDudcm This is the first step in unit conversions. The base unit u is the starting or reference point for all the other prefixes. If you say that you have a “kilo” of some measurement, you are really saying that you have “1000 u” of that measurement. We are very close to practicing unit conversions, but we first must learn what the units of measurement are for some of the most common types of measurement.

distance mass pressure energy time volume

Base Unit
meter gram Pascal Joule second liter

m g Pa J s L

So if you have a kilogram of some substance, you are talking about the substance’s mass. Because the base unit of mass is grams, if you say you have one kilogram of a substance you in effect say that you have 1000 grams of that substance. Instead of writing out “kilogram” over and over, we can simply put the prefix (k) in front of the base unit (g) to create kg, or kilogram. The Metric system is extremely useful when dealing with very large and very small quantities. Let’s practice some examples of unit conversions: Example 1. How many kiloliters do I have if I have 267.0 liters? 1. First write out K H D u d c m 2. Liters is the base unit, and therefore we start at the letter u. We want to know how many kilo liters we have, so we move three spaces over to the letter K. Each time we move a letter (“jumping” a letter) we move the decimal either to the left or the right by that many jumps. In this case, we moved 3 times from u to K, going to the left.

Start at 267.0L: 1 Jump = 26.70, 2 Jumps = 2.670, 3 Jumps = .2670kL So 267.0L is equal to .2670kL

Example 2. How many mm do I have if I have 12.5cm? 1. Write out K H D u d c m 2. Identify the starting place. We are working with units of distance (meters) and starting from cm (centimeters), we need to find out how many mm (millimeters) this is. The prefix m is to the right of c, and there is one jump between c and m. Therefore we need to move the decimal one place over to the right: 12.5cm = 1 Jump to the right = 125.0mm So 12.5cm is equal to 125.0mm

Understanding Moles, Molecular Weight, and Molarity
Central to virtually all topics of chemistry is the concept of the mole. In its most basic definition, a “mole” is simply unit of quantization. Just like we know that a pair represents 2 units of something, a dozen represents 12 units of something, a gross represents 144 units of something, and a ream represents 500 units of something, a mole represents 6.022 x 1023 of something. This 6.022 x 1023 number is special, and is known as Avogadro’s Number (NA). Chemists needed to make the mole such a huge number because the basics units of all matter (atoms and molecules) are so incredibly tiny. When you say you have 1 mole of NaCl, you say that you have 6.022 x 1023 molecules of NaCl. If you have 2.5 moles of NaCl, you have: (2.5 moles)(6.022 x 1023 ) = 1.5055 x 1024 molecules of NaCl.

Next concept is that of molecular weight. Certain compounds have specific molecular weights. The molecular weight of something is just how much it would weigh if you had a mole of that something, and is given in terms of grams per mole. Individual elements as well as compounds have molecular weights. If you look at the Periodic Table, you can find an element’s molecular weight very easily. For instance, H (hydrogen) has a molecular weight of about 1 g/mol (**mole is abbreviated to mol**), O (oxygen) is about 8 g/mol, and C (carbon) is about 12 g/mol.

When we want to figure out concentrations of substances in solution, scientists typically use what we call Molarity, abbreviated M. Molarity measures concentration in terms of of moles per liter. To solve for the concentration of a solution in M, we need to first figure out how many moles of a substance we have. To do this take the amount of grams of a compound and divide it by the compound’s molecular weight (MW).

Example 1: Let’s say I have 3.0 grams of sodium chloride (NaCl) that is dissolved in 25.7 mL of water. What is the Molarity of this solution? We first need to solve for the correct number of moles of NaCl in solution. On the periodic table, Na= 23.00 g/mol and Cl= 35.4 g/mol. Together, NaCl= 58.4 g/mol, which is the MW of the compound. As previously stated, the number of moles is measured by the amount of grams of a compound divided by its molecular weight. So, ( ( ) )( ) ( )( )

Now that we have the number of moles of NaCl we can solve for Molarity.

** Keep in mind that the equation for Molarity needs to have the volume of the solution in terms of L. Because the problem gave us volume in mL we needed to first convert that to L in order to solve the problem.**

Understanding What the Question is Asking/Key Terms
I find students have trouble answering specific questions on preliminary lab assignments, lab write-ups, and especially on quizzes and exams. The first step prior to even working on the problems is reading the question carefully. It is important to write down and take note of every given value in the question. A good habit to start getting into is circling or highlighting the given

values in a question and underlining what the question is asking. Yes this may seem very childish, but it actually gives a better sense what is going on in a multiple choice problem as a chemistry student, especially when the problems start becoming more complicated by requiring multiple unit conversions and calculations. For instance, a question may ask you to calculate the molarity, which is the concentration measured regarding the amount of moles of solute per liter of solution, when the initial values for solving a chemistry problem is in milliliters! Let’s use our knowledge of converting units to solve a specific problem involving molarity and concentration.

Example 1: Suppose a 6 gram sugar cube is dissolved in a 500 mL cup of hot water. What would be the Molarity of the sugar solution? Students who came from high school, and who had never taken a chemistry course before, freak out. You might be thinking, “Yep, I’d go grab a cup myself and just stare at this question as I drink my delicious tea.” However, let’s attempt to answer the question. First, let’s underline what we are trying to find. Suppose a 6 gram sugar cube is dissolved in a 500 ml cup of hot water. What would be the molarity of the sugar solution? Next, let’s circle/highlight the initially given values and write them down: Suppose a 6 gram sugar cube is dissolved in a 500 ml cup of hot water. What would be the molarity of the sugar solution? (Sugar: C12H22O11 = 342 g/mol) Things to note: Grams is a unit of mass, g/mol is the molecular weight, molarity is mol/L and milliliters is a unit of volume. Given: Mass = 6 grams of sugar Molecular Weight of sugar = 342 g/mol Volume = 500 ml of hot water Molarity of sugar solution = ? mol/L

After writing down the given values, we need to recall that we are look for the molarity of the sugar solution. We noticed that we have 6 grams of sugar, the molecular weight is 342 g/mol, and that the units for molarity has the term “mol.” That means we have to use conversion! ( )( ) ( )( )

Awesome, we are halfway there! Now we can divide 0.0175 mol by 500 L right? NO! Notice that I mistakenly mentioned 500 L when the initial value given for volume was 500 milliliters (mL). A student may make the immediate step to divide by 500 ml (thinking it’s in L) and be on his merry way to the next question when he or she forgot to CONVERT. Yes, we need to convert milliliters to liters. It’s important to remember that there is 1000 milliliters in 1 liter. ( )( ) ( )( )

Unit Conversion Method: Start at 500.0 mL: 1 Jump = 50.00, 2 Jumps = 5.000, 3 Jumps = .5000L So 500 mL is equal to .

Now that we have our moles and Liters, we can divide the mol over the liters to receive our concentration, molarity. Therefore:

Did we find what we were looking for? YES! The question asked for the molarity of the sugar solution, which we calculated to be 0.035 mol/L. Sometimes, the most difficult question may look impossible at first glance. However, once you break down the key terms and take a closer look at the initial values that are given to you, answering the question in addition to your in-class knowledge and reading may not seem so bad after all!

Moreover, it’s not enough to just do one question. That’s not nearly enough practice to tell yourself that you fully understand the concept completely, and celebrate by getting your favorite ice cream at Carvel. Sometimes, questions can be asking for a different value yet the steps to solving the question remain the same. What if we were given all the initial values EXCEPT the volume of hot water in a question similar to Example 1? Let’s take a look: Example 2: Suppose the molarity of a sugar solution was 0.0453 mol/L. A sugar cube was dissolved in a cup of hot water. What would be the volume of the hot water? (Sugar: C12H22O11 = 342 g/mol) Just like in the Example 1, we need to underline what we are looking for and circle/highlight initial values given to us. Example 2: Suppose the molarity of a sugar solution was 0.0453 mol/L. A 5 gram sugar cube was dissolved in a cup of hot water. What would be the volume of the hot water? (Sugar: C12H22O11 = 342 g/mol) Given: Mass = 5 grams of sugar Molecular Weight of sugar = 342 g/mol Molarity of sugar solution = 0.0453 mol/L Volume = ? ml of hot water (let’s suppose we want it in milliliters) There are various ways to start this question. I’m going to settle in converting sugar to moles again. As you can see, I want the moles of sugar so I can use it to convert it into volume using the molarity of the sugar solution. Let’s calculate:







By finding the mols of sugar, we can determine the volume already using the given concentration of a sugar solution, 0.0453 mol/L! ( )( )

We have found our volume of hot water. Now let’s convert liters to milliliters:




Have we answered the underlined question? It looks like it. The volume of hot water was calculated to be 313 milliliters.

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