For our audience, let's define those terms.
An endothermic reaction soaks up heat. An exothermic reaction releases heat. Endothermicity and exothermicity depend on whether products or reactants have more energy (for reactions at constant volume) or more of something called enthalpy (for reactions at fixed pressure). The energies and enthalpies of many common substances can be looked up in tables, although often you have to make some corrections if the reactions are taking place at different temperatures or pressures than the ones used for the tables.
So if the sum of the enthalpies of the reactants is greater than the products, the reaction will be exothermic. If the products side has a larger enthalpy, the reaction is endothermic.
You may wonder why endothermic reactions, which soak up energy or enthalpy from the environment, even happen. Most spontaneous events (like water flowing downhill) release energy to the environment, heating it up. However, the principle governing which way reactions (and other events) go is that the total amount of something called entropy goes up. Entropy is a measure of how many different microscopic states things might be in. One way to increase the entropy of the environment is to release heat into it, as in exothermic reactions. However, sometimes substances can increase their own entropy a lot by soaking up heat, and then endothermic reactions can occur, even though the environment loses entropy.
A quantity called the Gibbs’ Free Energy is used to keep track of both the entropy change of the substances and the heat released to the environment (and thus the environment’s entropy change). For reactions at constant pressure, the Gibbs free energy goes down. Gibbs’ free energies are also tabulated for many substances under standard conditions.
Jason and Mike W.
(published on 10/22/2007)
(published on 02/02/09)