What’s “Free” about ΔG?

In addition to indicating spontaneity, the free energy change also provides information regarding the amount of useful work (w) that may be accomplished by a spontaneous process. Although a rigorous treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of an introductory chemistry text, a brief discussion is helpful for gaining a better perspective on this important thermodynamic property.

For this purpose, consider a spontaneous, exothermic process that involves a decrease in entropy. The free energy, as defined by


may be interpreted as representing the difference between the energy produced by the process, ΔH, and the energy lost to the surroundings, TΔS. The difference between the energy produced and the energy lost is the energy available (or “free”) to do useful work by the process, ΔG. If the process somehow could be made to take place under conditions of thermodynamic reversibility, the amount of work that could be done would be maximal:


However, as noted previously in this chapter, such conditions are not realistic. In addition, the technologies used to extract work from a spontaneous process (e.g., automobile engine, steam turbine) are never 100% efficient, and so the work done by these processes is always less than the theoretical maximum. Similar reasoning may be applied to a nonspontaneous process, for which the free energy change represents the minimum amount of work that must be done on the system to carry out the process.