Chemical formula

Aluminium sulfate has the chemical formula Al2(SO4)3. The form of aluminium sulfate hexadecahydrate is Al2(SO4)3•16H2O.
Structural formula for n-butane. This is not a chemical formula. Examples of chemical formulas for n-butane are the empirical formula C2H5, the molecular formula C4H10 and the condensed (or semi-structural) formula CH3CH2CH2CH3.

A chemical formula is a way of presenting information about the chemical proportions of atoms that constitute a particular chemical compound or molecule, using chemical element symbols, numbers, and sometimes also other symbols, such as parentheses, dashes, brackets, commas and plus (+) and minus (−) signs. These are limited to a single typographic line of symbols, which may include subscripts and superscripts. A chemical formula is not a chemical name, and it contains no words. Although a chemical formula may imply certain simple chemical structures, it is not the same as a full chemical structural formula. Chemical formulas can fully specify the structure of only the simplest of molecules and chemical substances, and are generally more limited in power than are chemical names and structural formulas.

The simplest types of chemical formulas are called empirical formulas, which use letters and numbers indicating the numerical proportions of atoms of each type. Molecular formulas indicate the simple numbers of each type of atom in a molecule, with no information on structure. For example, the empirical formula for glucose is CH2O (twice as many hydrogen atoms as carbon and oxygen), while its molecular formula is C6H12O6 (12 hydrogen atoms, six carbon and oxygen atoms).

Sometimes a chemical formula is complicated by being written as a condensed formula (or condensed molecular formula, occasionally called a "semi-structural formula"), which conveys additional information about the particular ways in which the atoms are chemically bonded together, either in covalent bonds, ionic bonds, or various combinations of these types. This is possible if the relevant bonding is easy to show in one dimension. An example is the condensed molecular/chemical formula for ethanol, which is CH3-CH2-OH or CH3CH2OH. However, even a condensed chemical formula is necessarily limited in its ability to show complex bonding relationships between atoms, especially atoms that have bonds to four or more different substituents.

Since a chemical formula must be expressed as a single line of chemical element symbols, it often cannot be as informative as a true structural formula, which is a graphical representation of the spatial relationship between atoms in chemical compounds (see for example the figure for butane structural and chemical formulas, at right). For reasons of structural complexity, there is no condensed chemical formula (or semi-structural formula) that specifies glucose (and there exist many different molecules, for example fructose and mannose, that have the same molecular formula C6H12O6 as glucose). Linear equivalent chemical names exist that can and do specify any complex structural formula (see chemical nomenclature), but such names must use many terms (words), rather than the simple element symbols, numbers, and simple typographical symbols that define a chemical formula.

Chemical formulas may be used in chemical equations to describe chemical reactions and other chemical transformations, such as the dissolving of ionic compounds into solution. While, as noted, chemical formulas do not have the full power of structural formulas to show chemical relationships between atoms, they are sufficient to keep track of numbers of atoms and numbers of electrical charges in chemical reactions, thus balancing chemical equations so that these equations can be used in chemical problems involving conservation of atoms, and conservation of electric charge.


A chemical formula identifies each constituent element by its chemical symbol and indicates the proportionate number of atoms of each element. In empirical formulas, these proportions begin with a key element and then assign numbers of atoms of the other elements in the compound, by ratios to the key element. For molecular compounds, these ratio numbers can all be expressed as whole numbers. For example, the empirical formula of ethanol may be written C2H6O because the molecules of ethanol all contain two carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms, and one oxygen atom. Some types of ionic compounds, however, cannot be written with entirely whole-number empirical formulas. An example is boron carbide, whose formula of CBn is a variable non-whole number ratio with n ranging from over 4 to more than 6.5.

When the chemical compound of the formula consists of simple molecules, chemical formulas often employ ways to suggest the structure of the molecule. These types of formulas are variously known as molecular formulas and condensed formulas. A molecular formula enumerates the number of atoms to reflect those in the molecule, so that the molecular formula for glucose is C6H12O6 rather than the glucose empirical formula, which is CH2O. However, except for very simple substances, molecular chemical formulas lack needed structural information, and are ambiguous.

For simple molecules, a condensed (or semi-structural) formula is a type of chemical formula that may fully imply a correct structural formula. For example, ethanol may be represented by the condensed chemical formula CH3CH2OH, and dimethyl ether by the condensed formula CH3OCH3. These two molecules have the same empirical and molecular formulas (C2H6O), but may be differentiated by the condensed formulas shown, which are sufficient to represent the full structure of these simple organic compounds.

Condensed chemical formulas may also be used to represent ionic compounds that do not exist as discrete molecules, but nonetheless do contain covalently bound clusters within them. These polyatomic ions are groups of atoms that are covalently bound together and have an overall ionic charge, such as the sulfate [SO
ion. Each polyatomic ion in a compound is written individually in order to illustrate the separate groupings. For example, the compound dichlorine hexoxide has an empirical formula ClO
, and molecular formula Cl
, but in liquid or solid forms, this compound is more correctly shown by an ionic condensed formula [ClO
, which illustrates that this compound consists of [ClO
ions and [ClO
ions. In such cases, the condensed formula only need be complex enough to show at least one of each ionic species.

Chemical formulas as described here are distinct from the far more complex chemical systematic names that are used in various systems of chemical nomenclature. For example, one systematic name for glucose is (2R,3S,4R,5R)-2,3,4,5,6-pentahydroxyhexanal. This name, interpreted by the rules behind it, fully specifies glucose's structural formula, but the name is not a chemical formula as usually understood, and uses terms and words not used in chemical formulas. Such names, unlike basic formulas, may be able to represent full structural formulas without graphs.

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