By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish between spontaneous and nonspontaneous processes
  • Describe the dispersal of matter and energy that accompanies certain spontaneous processes

Processes have a natural tendency to occur in one direction under a given set of conditions. Water will naturally flow downhill, but uphill flow requires outside intervention such as the use of a pump. Iron exposed to the earth’s atmosphere will corrode, but rust is not converted to iron without intentional chemical treatment. A spontaneous process is one that occurs naturally under certain conditions. A nonspontaneous process, on the other hand, will not take place unless it is “driven” by the continual input of energy from an external source. A process that is spontaneous in one direction under a particular set of conditions is nonspontaneous in the reverse direction. At room temperature and typical atmospheric pressure, for example, ice will spontaneously melt, but water will not spontaneously freeze.

The spontaneity of a process is not correlated to the speed of the process. A spontaneous change may be so rapid that it is essentially instantaneous or so slow that it cannot be observed over any practical period of time. To illustrate this concept, consider the decay of radioactive isotopes, a topic more thoroughly treated in the chapter on nuclear chemistry. Radioactive decay is by definition a spontaneous process in which the nuclei of unstable isotopes emit radiation as they are converted to more stable nuclei. All the decay processes occur spontaneously, but the rates at which different isotopes decay vary widely. Technetium-99m is a popular radioisotope for medical imaging studies that undergoes relatively rapid decay and exhibits a half-life of about six hours. Uranium-238 is the most abundant isotope of uranium, and its decay occurs much more slowly, exhibiting a half-life of more than four billion years ([Figure 1]).

Both U-238 and Tc-99m undergo spontaneous radioactive decay, but at drastically different rates. Over the course of one week, essentially all of a Tc-99m sample and none of a U-238 sample will have decayed.

As another example, consider the conversion of diamond into graphite ([Figure 2]).

$$C(\text{s, diamond})⟶C(\text{s, graphite})$$

The phase diagram for carbon indicates that graphite is the stable form of this element under ambient atmospheric pressure, while diamond is the stable allotrope at very high pressures, such as those present during its geologic formation. Thermodynamic calculations of the sort described in the last section of this chapter indicate that the conversion of diamond to graphite at ambient pressure occurs spontaneously, yet diamonds are observed to exist, and persist, under these conditions. Though the process is spontaneous under typical ambient conditions, its rate is extremely slow; so, for all practical purposes diamonds are indeed “forever.” Situations such as these emphasize the important distinction between the thermodynamic and the kinetic aspects of a process. In this particular case, diamonds are said to be thermodynamically unstable but kinetically stable under ambient conditions.

The conversion of carbon from the diamond allotrope to the graphite allotrope is spontaneous at ambient pressure, but its rate is immeasurably slow at low to moderate temperatures. This process is known as graphitization, and its rate can be increased to easily measurable values at temperatures in the 1000–2000 K range. (credit “diamond” photo: modification of work by “Fancy Diamonds”/Flickr; credit “graphite” photo: modificaton of work by images-of-elements.com/carbon.php)