Analytical Chemistry

Measure Twice

How long does it take a chemical reaction to reach completion?

The length of time it takes a reaction to run to completion can range from a fraction of a second to thousands of years. It all depends on how large the energy barrier is for reactants to convert to products. If it’s a simple acid-base reaction, like the addition of an HCl solution to water, the reaction will proceed almost instantly. Other reactions can be slower, such as the rusting of a car door. What you first notice as a small spot of rust could take years to spread over the rest of the door. Other reactions can be even slower yet. For example, the slowest biologically relevant reaction known in humans is estimated to take about one trillion years in the absence of an enzyme to catalyze it. That’s longer than scientists believe the universe has even existed! Fortunately, enzymes have evolved that allow this reaction to take place in only a few milliseconds.


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