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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Compute the percent composition of a compound
  • Determine the empirical formula of a compound
  • Determine the molecular formula of a compound

In the previous section, we discussed the relationship between the bulk mass of a substance and the number of atoms or molecules it contains (moles). Given the chemical formula of the substance, we were able to determine the amount of the substance (moles) from its mass, and vice versa. But what if the chemical formula of a substance is unknown? In this section, we will explore how to apply these very same principles in order to derive the chemical formulas of unknown substances from experimental mass measurements.

Percent composition

The elemental makeup of a compound defines its chemical identity, and chemical formulas are the most succinct way of representing this elemental makeup. When a compound’s formula is unknown, measuring the mass of each of its constituent elements is often the first step in the process of determining the formula experimentally. The results of these measurements permit the calculation of the compound’s percent composition    , defined as the percentage by mass of each element in the compound. For example, consider a gaseous compound composed solely of carbon and hydrogen. The percent composition of this compound could be represented as follows:

% H = mass H mass compound × 100 %
% C = mass C mass compound × 100 %

If analysis of a 10.0-g sample of this gas showed it to contain 2.5 g H and 7.5 g C, the percent composition would be calculated to be 25% H and 75% C:

% H = 2.5 g H 10.0 g compound × 100 % = 25 %
% C = 7.5 g C 10.0 g compound × 100 % = 75 %

Calculation of percent composition

Analysis of a 12.04-g sample of a liquid compound composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen showed it to contain 7.34 g C, 1.85 g H, and 2.85 g N. What is the percent composition of this compound?


To calculate percent composition, we divide the experimentally derived mass of each element by the overall mass of the compound, and then convert to a percentage:

% C = 7.34 g C 12.04 g compound × 100 % = 61.0 % % H = 1.85 g H 12.04 g compound × 100 % = 15.4 % % N = 2.85 g N 12.04 g compound × 100 % = 23.7 %

The analysis results indicate that the compound is 61.0% C, 15.4% H, and 23.7% N by mass.

Check your learning

A 24.81-g sample of a gaseous compound containing only carbon, oxygen, and chlorine is determined to contain 3.01 g C, 4.00 g O, and 17.81 g Cl. What is this compound’s percent composition?


12.1% C, 16.1% O, 71.8% Cl

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

Determining percent composition from formula mass

Percent composition is also useful for evaluating the relative abundance of a given element in different compounds of known formulas. As one example, consider the common nitrogen-containing fertilizers ammonia (NH 3 ), ammonium nitrate (NH 4 NO 3 ), and urea (CH 4 N 2 O). The element nitrogen is the active ingredient for agricultural purposes, so the mass percentage of nitrogen in the compound is a practical and economic concern for consumers choosing among these fertilizers. For these sorts of applications, the percent composition of a compound is easily derived from its formula mass and the atomic masses of its constituent elements. A molecule of NH 3 contains one N atom weighing 14.01 amu and three H atoms weighing a total of (3 × 1.008 amu) = 3.024 amu. The formula mass of ammonia is therefore (14.01 amu + 3.024 amu) = 17.03 amu, and its percent composition is:

Questions & Answers

give two properties of liquid
Grace Reply
what is measurement
Isaiah Reply
is the comparison of an unknown quantity with a fixed quantity of the same kind
How does an element differ from a compound? How are they similar?
Adeola Reply
an element is an indivisible particles that can take part in a reaction and consist of smaller or tiny particles i.e proton, neutrons and electron while a compound is when two or more element chemically combine together. They are similar when they are homogeneous compound. they take the same rxn.
an element is s chemically pure substance containing a particular type of atoms.. A COMPOUND is a substance containing atoms from different elements..
How to get the Lewis formula of SeCl+3
Erica Reply
hi,I'm new here can I join the conversation
what is the structural formula for starch
EZEA Reply
Starch is a mixture (of chemicals) of amylose and amylopectin. Both are macromolecules and polymers. You can search on wikipedia.
what is the roles of filter bed
what is the roles of Alu m
what is the roles of chlorine
Roles can be classified or correlate it to different areas: For example: Chlorine can be used in reactions (in industry) to manufacture HCl, which then can be used for other things. Or in swimming pools to kill bacteria. Or as a component in compounds with pharmaceutical roles (drugs). For Al:
Its dentisty value is suitable to be used in alloys (mixture of metals) in aircraft bodies. Also, Aluminium foils, Tin cans,.. Some of them are also in Al overhead cables in streets and long roads.
what is chemistry
what is the meaning of exceedingly
Yushao Reply
it is an adverb which means extremely
what is atomic chemistry?
Gladys Reply
Lewis structure for no3
Lewis structure for no3
what is weak acid
Muhammed Reply
It is an acid which partially ionises in water.
what is incandescence
what makes it glow
why is it red, irange and yellow in color
hello am new here and I want to join you
hello i am new here please i want to join this group
Hi, I'm also new here
hello guys !!
what is pressure?
Slark Reply
The force applied to suction Area of the body
Matter composed of exceedingly small paticle called atom.
questions related to metals
Regina Reply
occurrence and preparation of the representatives metals
list the 20, periodic table and their symbols
Fathmat Reply
hydrogen:h helium;he lithium:l beryllium:be Boron:b Carbon;C Nitrogen:n Oxygen:O FLUORINE:f Neon:n Sodium:s Magnesium:mg Aluminum:a Silicon:s Phosphorus:p Sulphur:s Chlorine:c Argon;a Potassium:p Calcium:c
Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium, aluminium, silicon, phosphorus, sulphur, chlorine, argon, potassium, calcium
what is a solute
Ekezie Reply
Any substance that is disolved in a liqid solvent to create a solution
sorry liquid
it's a liquid substance
hello group
is the substance that dissolves in the solvent
so is HCl ionic compound
Honest Reply
No, covalent compound ➡️ molecule. As both H and Cl are non-metals and and form covalent bind by sharing valence e-. But can fully ionice in water forming H+ (a proton, a reason for acidity) and Cl- (anion =Chloride) Hydrogen Chloride is a gas at room; Hydrochloric acid = HCl (aq), dissolved in w
Form covalenr bond*
The question marks are an emoji in the first sentence is an unread emoji. HCl Covalent compund -> molecule
what is chemistry
Chukwu Reply
is the study of composition of substances and the way they behave under different conditions
how do calculate n1 though n6 any help on understanding the concept
is the study of properties of matter and it's component
where can I get the test bank or mcqs ? any idea ?
Sourav Reply
Practice Key Terms 2

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Source:  OpenStax, Chemistry. OpenStax CNX. May 20, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11760/1.9
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