A Diagram of the Born-Haber cycle for the standard enthalpy change of formation of lithium fluoride

To achieve a solid understanding of the underpinnings of enthalpy change is one of the most important goals in MCAT preparation.

Thermochemistry is the branch of chemistry concerned with the heat evolved or absorbed in a chemical process. Thermochemistry approaches chemical change through the First Law of Thermodynamics, but finds it more convenient to define a state function, the enthalpy, which is the sum of a system's internal energy and the product of its pressure and volume (H = E + PV).

The enthalpy is an extremely useful construct. We understand from the First Law of Thermodynamics that the heat flow occuring in a process such as mixing, phase change, or chemical reaction must be equal to the combination of internal energy change for the system and thermodynamic work. With the enthalpy change, though, we can describe the heat flow as a change in a single state function, the enthalpy. Because enthalpy change is not path dependent, but dependent on change in thermodynamic state, we can derive the extremely useful principle, Hess's Law of Heat Summation, which states that the heat exchange accompanying a transformation is the same whether the process occurs in one or several steps. A large part of skill in Thermochemistry involves imagining pathways for chemical change that help you understand the enthalpy change of a process which may or may not occur by that path.

The sequence of thermochemical reasoning is one of the primary conceptual arcs underlying the understanding of chemistry, so while there may only be a couple of questions that lead to an 'enthalpy change' as an answer, your thermochemical understanding will be in operation throughout the exam. When you learn to see the substances involved in a chemical reaction as a thermodynamic system, you can see any chemical process as a transformation through which internal energy may change, thermodynamic work may be performed, and heat may be evolved or absorbed. Over the next chapters, after we begin making the connections between Thermochemistry and Chemical Thermodynamics, knowledge of Thermochemistry will serve as the basis for a deeper understanding of spontaneity and chemical equilibrium.

WikiPremed Resources

Thermochemistry Practice Items
Problem set for Thermochemistry in PDF format

Answer Key
Answers and explanations

Thermochemistry Images
Image gallery for study with links to larger teaching JPEGs for classroom presentation

Question Drill for Thermochemistry
Conceptual Vocabulary Self-Test

Basic Terms Crossword Puzzle

Basic Puzzle Solution

Learning Goals


Conceptually visualize the atomic, molecular and intermolecular level within a chemical substance to understand how internal energy changes during chemical processes.

Explain conservation of energy in chemical systems in terms of the first law of thermodynamics.

Understand the concept of enthalpy as a state function and what leads to enthalpy change.

Be capable of using thermochemical terminology to explain the time-temperature graph of the transformation of ice into steam.

Comprehend the importance of Hess's Law of Heat Summation both for intuitive reasoning and practical problem solving.

Appreciate the underlying basis in Hess's Law for the Standard Enthalpies of Formation. Obtain skill in using Standard Enthalpies to assign enthalpy change to chemical reactions.

Suggested Assignments

Review the terminology for thermochemistry using the question server. Complete the fundamental terms crossword puzzle. Here is the solution to the puzzle.

Perform the practice items for thermochemistry. Here is the answer key for the practice items.

In ExamKrackers Chemistry. Read pp. 131-140. Perform practice items 81-88 on pg. 141. (Reading and practice items for thermochemistry and some chemical thermodynamics concepts).

Review the thermochemistry web resources. Perdue and especially chem1.com are excellent for this subject. Highly recommended!

Conceptual Vocabulary for Thermochemistry


Each list begins with basic conceptual vocabulary you need to know for MCAT questions and proceeds to advanced terms that might appear in context in MCAT passages. The terms are links to Wikipedia articles.
Thermochemistry is the study of the heat evolved or absorbed in chemical reactions.
The enthalpy or heat content is a quotient or description of thermodynamic potential of a system equivalent to the sum of the internal energy of the system plus the product of its volume multiplied by the pressure exerted on it by its surroundings.
Heat of combustion
The heat of combustion is the energy released when a compound undergoes complete combustion with oxygen.
Exothermic describes a process or reaction that releases energy in the form of heat.
Endothermic describes a process or reaction that absorbs energy in the form of heat.
A calorimeter is a device used for measuring the heat of chemical reactions or physical changes as well as heat capacity.
Standard conditions for temperature and pressure
Standard temperature and pressure is a standard set of conditions for experimental measurements, to enable comparisons to be made between sets of data.
Hess's law
Developed through conceptualizing cyclic reaction processes in which the return path is different than the forward path, Hess's Law of Heat Summation is used to predict the enthalpy change regardless of the path through which it is to be determined.
Reaction calorimeter
A reaction calorimeter is an instrument that enables the energy being released or absorbed by a reaction to be measured.
Calorimetry is the science of measuring the heat of chemical reactions or physical changes.
Bond dissociation energy
Bond dissociation energy is defined as the standard enthalpy change when a bond is cleaved by homolysis, with reactants and products of the homolysis reaction at 0K (absolute zero).
Standard enthalpy of Combustion
The standard enthalpy of combustion is the change in enthalpy of the total reacting system when one mole of a substance completely reacts with oxygen, and is observed at 298K and 1 atmospheric pressure
Standard enthalpy of formation
The standard enthalpy of formation of a compound is the change of enthalpy that accompanies forming 1 mole of a substance in its standard state from its constituent elements in their standard states
Born-Haber cycle
The Born-Haber Cycle is an approach to analyzing reaction energies involving the formation of an ionic compound from the reaction of a group I or group II metal with a non-metal.
Standard state
The standard state of a material is its state at 1 bar (100 kilopascals exactly).
Lattice energy
The lattice energy of an ionic solid is a measure of the strength of bonds in that ionic compound, equivalent to the amount of energy required to separate a solid ionic compound into gaseous ions.
Standard enthalpy change of reaction
The standard enthalpy change of reaction is the enthalpy change that occurs in a system when one mole of matter is transformed by a chemical reaction under standard conditions.
Enthalpy of atomization
The enthalpy of atomization is the enthalpy change that accompanies the total separation of all atoms in a chemical substance
Isenthalpic process
An isenthalpic process is one that proceeds without any change in enthalpy (also known as a throttling process).
Isodesmic reaction
An isodesmic reaction is a chemical reaction in which the type of chemical bonds broken in the reactant are the same as the type of bonds formed in the reaction product.
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