Empirical formula

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In chemistry, the empirical formula of a chemical compound is a simple expression of the relative number of each type of atom in it. An empirical formula makes no reference to isomerism, structure, or absolute number of atoms. Empirical formulae are the standard for most ionic compounds, such as CaCl2, and for macromolecules, such as SiO2. The term empirical refers to the process of elemental analysis, a technique of analytical chemistry used to determine the relative percent composition of a pure chemical substance by element.

In contrast, the molecular formula identifies a multiple of the smallest whole number ratio in moles.

For example, n-hexane, a chemical compound has the molecular formula CH3CH2CH2CH2CH2CH3, implying that it has a straight chain structure, 6 carbon atoms, and 14 hydrogen atoms. Hexane's molecular formula is C6H14, and its empirical formula would be C3H7 showing a C:H ratio of 3:7.

Use in physics

In physics, an empirical formula is a special mathematical equation that predicts observed results, but has no known theoretical basis to explain why it works.

An example was the Rydberg formula to predict the wavelengths of hydrogen spectral lines. Proposed in 1888, it perfectly predicted the wavelengths of the Lyman series, but until Niels Bohr produced his Bohr model of the atom in 1913, nobody knew why the formula worked.

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