Aqueous geochemists work daily with equations that describe the equilibrium points of chemical reactions among dissolved species, minerals, and gases. To study an individual reaction, a geochemist writes the familiar expression, known as the mass action equation, relating species' activities to the reaction's equilibrium constant. In this chapter we carry this type of analysis a step farther by developing expressions that describe the conditions under which not just one but all of the possible reactions in a geochemical system are at equilibrium.
We consider a geochemical system comprising at least an aqueous solution in which the species of many elements are dissolved. We generally have some information about the fluid's bulk composition, perhaps directly because we have analyzed it in the laboratory. The system may include one or more minerals, up to the limit imposed by the phase rule (see Section 3.4), that coexist with, and are in equilibrium with the aqueous fluid. The fluid's composition might also be buffered by equilibrium with a gas reservoir (perhaps the atmosphere) that contains one or more gases. The gas buffer is large enough that its composition remains essentially unchanged if gas exsolves from or dissolves into the fluid.
How can we express the equilibrium state of such a system? A direct approach would be to write each reaction that could occur among the system's species, minerals, and gases. To solve for the equilibrium state, we would determine a set of concentrations that simultaneously satisfy the mass action equation corresponding to each possible reaction.