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The Empirical Formula of a Compound

The Law of Definite Proportions states that any pure chemical compound is made up of two or
more elements in the same proportions by mass. In other words, the ratio of atoms in a
compound is fixed. For example, in the water molecule, hydrogen is 11% and oxygen is 89% by
mass. The ratio is always 2 atoms of hydrogen to 1 atom of oxygen. It does not matter where the
water comes from, the percentages and the ratios are always the same.
The empirical formula, the smallest whole number ratio of atoms in a compound, can be
determined in a laboratory experiment by finding the ratio between the number of moles of each
of the elements in a compound. The number of moles of each element can be calculated from
the experimental values of the masses in which the elements combine by dividing by their
corresponding atomic masses.
In this experiment we will determine the empirical formula of a compound composed of copper
and chloride by reducing a known amount of the compound with aluminum to elemental copper.
From the mass of the initial compound and the mass of the copper formed, subtraction will give
the mass of chlorine. From these masses, the mole ratio of copper to chlorine, the empirical
formula, and the percent composition of copper in the compound can be calculated.

To calculate the percent composition of an element in a compound.
To experimentally determine the empirical formula of a compound.
To illustrate the Law of Definite Proportions.
1. Determine the calibration of the 100 mL graduated cylinder.
2. Measure out approximately 60 mL of the blue solution of the copper chloride compound into a
100 mL graduated cylinder. Use the marking pencil to label your name on a 100 mL beaker.
The number of mL divided by 10 is the number of grams of the copper chloride compound in
your sample. Transfer the solution into a 100 mL beaker.
3. Obtain a pre-cut aluminum wire (approximately 35 cm in length). Make a flat coil on
one end of the wire, and a handle on the other end. Make the handle long enough so that
the wire can be hung over the side of the beaker.
4. Bring your beaker with the copper solution and the coil to the hood. Place the coil into
the solution. The coil must be covered by the solution and should reach the bottom of the

5. As the reaction proceeds you will see brown flakes of copper accumulating on the wire.
Occasionally shake the wire to loosen the copper. The full disappearance of the initial
blue color of the copper (II) ions indicates the reaction is complete.
6. Test the reaction for completion:
With a clean Pasteur pipette, place 10 drops of the solution into a clean small test tube.
Add 3 drops of 6M aqueous ammonia, NH4OH, to the test tube. If a dark blue color
appears, copper (II) ions are still present and the reaction should be allowed to proceed
for a few more minutes before re-testing for completion.
7. When the solution no longer tests positive, the reaction is complete. Shake the aluminum
wire so that all the copper clinging to it will fall into the solution. With distilled water
wash bottle, rinse off the aluminum wire to remove any remaining copper. Remove the
unreacted aluminum wire from the solution and discard in the solid waste container
8. Set up a vacuum filtration apparatus, Figure 1.
9. Mass a filter paper that fits into the Buchner funnel + a watch glass to the nearest 0.001 g.
10. Place the massed filter paper into the Buchner funnel. Moisten the filter paper with
distilled water, turn on the water aspirator (Figure 2), and filter the copper through the
Buchner funnel. Use a rubber policeman to move any residue left in the beaker into the
funnel. Rinse out the beaker with a small amount of distilled water at least 2 times and
transfer the rinsing to the Buchner funnel. If the filtrate is cloudy, re-filter slowly.
11. Wash the copper in the funnel with about 30 mL of acetone, which will help speed up the
drying process. Since there are no heat sources on the bench top this can be done on the
bench top. Let the copper remain on the filter paper with the water running for
approximately 5 minutes.
12. Carefully remove the filter paper from the Buchner funnel so as to not tear the paper or
lose any copper. Place the filter on a massed watch glass (remember to label the watch
glass with the marking pencil) and place it under the heat lamp for 10 minutes. Mass and
then place it back under the heat lamps for another 5 minutes. Keep doing this until the
mass difference between successive masses is 0.5 grams or less.
13. Mass the filter paper + watch glass + copper to 0.001 g.
14. Dispose of the water acetone mixture in the waste container.

15. From the experimental data, determine the empirical formula the copper chloride
compound, the percentage of copper in the sample, and the error in determining the
percentage of copper.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Prelab Questions

Name: ______________________________

1. State the Law of Definite Proportions.

2. Define empirical formula.

3. In another experiment, you found that 0.252 g of sulfur combined with 1.00 g of copper.
Determine the empirical formula of the compound (show your work).

4. Glucose, a common sugar, has the molecular formula of C6H12O6. What is its empirical

5. Methane, CH4, is a common gas. Determine the percent composition by mass of carbon
in methane (show your work).

6. Calcium chloride, CaCl2, is often used in winter to deal with ice on sidewalks. Calculate
the percent composition by mass of chloride ion in the salt (show your work).

Report Sheet

Name: ______________________________


Calibration of the 100 mL graduated cylinder



Volume of copper chloride solution



Initial mass of copper chloride compound in sample



Mass of filter paper + watch glass



Mass of filter paper + watch glass + copper (first mass)


Second mass


If necessary third mass



Mass of Cu



Molar mass of Cu



Number of moles of Cu in sample



Mass of Cl in sample



Molar mass of Cl



Number of moles of Cl in sample



Mole ratio of Cl to Cu


Moles of Cl
Moles of Cu


Simple whole number mole ratio of Cl to moles of Cu



Empirical formula for the copper chloride compound


(write as metalx non-mentaly)


Percentage of Cu in sample


Grams of Cu
x 100%
Grams of solution

Actual percentage of copper in compound


(see instructor)


Percent error


Post-Lab Questions

Name: ______________________________

Consider the following deviations from the experimental procedure. Explain how each of these
deviations specifically affect the mass of the copper recorded?
a. A student did not wait for the blue color to disappear but continued and collected the
precipitated copper by vacuum filtration?

b. Copper remained in the beaker on the transfer to the Buchner funnel?

c. The copper on the filter paper was not dry when the final mass was recorded.


In an experiment, a student isolated 6.356 g of pure copper from an initial sample 9.902 g of a
copper chloride compound. Determine the empirical formula of this compound (show your


How many grams of carbon are there in 83.5 g of formaldehyde, CH2O, which is 40.0% carbon
by mass (show your work)?


Your doctor has diagnosed you as being anemic and has recommended that you take an iron
supplement. At the drugstore, you find two iron-containing supplements: one contains 200. mg
of FeSO4 and the other contains 500. mg of Fe(C6H11O7)2. Quantitatively determine which
supplement delivers more iron (show your work). Remember that the two tablets have
different masses