A third, rather subtle quantity also is conserved during propane
combustion. This quantity, the oxidation number, is a measure
of the location of the electrons.
Carbon and hydrogen atoms are oxidized,
because they begin by sharing electrons equally with neighboring
atoms, but end by forming CO
and HO bonds
in which oxygen exerts the greater pull on the electrons.
Conversely, oxygen atoms are reduced because they begin by sharing
electrons equally in O=O molecules and end by monopolizing electrons
in their bonds with C and H. The sum of changes in oxidation numbers
of all the atoms in propane combustion is zero, because every atom
that loses its grip on an electron must be matched by another atom
that pulls the electron toward it. In this chapter we consider the
conservation of mass and oxidation number; the following chapters
are devoted to energy.
If we look at mass and energy closely enough, the principles that
they individually are conserved turn out to be only approximately
true. Mass and energy actually are interconvertible, and are different
manifestations of the same thing. We can uncouple them in thinking
about chemical reactions only because the quantities of energy involved
in chemical processes correspond to infinitesimal amounts of mass.