LeChatelier 10/2/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

When teaching chemistry, one of my favorite topics was LeChatelier’s Principle.  First of all, it’s just fun to say.  But, as much as it applies to chemistry, it also has many applications to life in general. 

Briefly, LeChatelier states that if you apply a stress to as system, the system will respond to as to relieve that stress.  Buffers are a common chemical example of the principle.  A buffer is a solution that resists changes in acidity on the addition of either an acid or a base.  A couple of things should be mentioned before moving on.  First, the buffer acidity will change.  It resists changes, but it’s not locked in, so the acidity will increase if you add an acid, or decrease if you add a base, but only very slightly.  If you add an acid or a base to water, the acidity changes dramatically, whereas for a buffer, it barely budges. 

Buffers exist in our daily lives.  I am addicted to a diet soft drink, and the company that makes it uses a buffer created from phosphoric acid in all of their products.  This might sound frightening to think that I am drinking phosphoric acid, but I’m really not.  The buffer is used to keep the acidity within a very narrow range, one that is safe for consumption.  But there’s more to it than just phosphoric acid.

A buffer is created by the addition of a weak acid with its “conjugate base”.  Once an acid is neutralized by the addition of a base, a salt is created.  While the acid can act like, well, an acid, it’s conjugate base can act like a base.  It’s almost Zen-like, the acid being the yin, and the conjugate base is the yang.  So, for example, if the acid is actually sodium dihydrogen phosphate, then the conjugate base would be disodium hydrogen phosphate.  One of the acidic hydrogens is replaced with a sodium.  Where the original acidic hydrogen once was, that same space is available to absorb a hydronium thus acting as a base. 

So, in the buffer created from an acid and its conjugate base, if you add an acid to the buffer, the conjugate base will neutralize it.  But if you add a base, the acid will neutralize it.  But in so doing, whichever the case might be, the ratio of the acid and its conjugate base changes, so while the acidity doesn’t change much, it does change. 

But LeChatelier’s principle also applies to everyday life.  For example, we use grades to influence students.  I’ve always wanted to teach a class without grades.  The students who want to learn will, and those who don’t won’t.  I guess I’m kind of doing that now with a video series I am creating for YouTube, “Chemical Principles” on my channel.  But in the university, while I would want students to do homework because they want to learn, the reality is that even those rare students who might want to wouldn’t do the homework.  Their other classes have grades, and so would have to take priority over a course taught for the curious.  So, applying the principles of LeChatelier, we apply a stress to the students by assigning grades.  This stress then drives the students to do their homework, and study for the exams in an effort to relieve the stress. 

Currently my friend is struggling with stress in her relationship.  I only know her side of the story, but it sounds as if she is reaching the end of her rope with her common-law husband that she refers to as a narcissist which it sounds as if he is, but again, I’m only hearing one side.  But the reality is that, whether his is or is not, he seems to either be clueless to the fact that his relationship is under stress, or he is not concerned with either the struggle or the relationship. 

LeChatelier tells us that something has to happen in this relationship to relieve the stress.  As a human being, he has the choice of modifying something to alleviate this stress, by opening channels of communication, or modifying his behavior, or suggesting couples counseling or some combination of these and other options.  But, if he doesn’t do anything, then the choice will fall on her shoulders.  She’ll learn to live with the problems she is describing to me, or she will terminate the relationship, but regardless of the future in store for this relationship, something will change, and the stress, for better or for worse, will be relieved.

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