# 4.4: Oxidation-Reduction Reactions

Learning Objectives

• To identify oxidation–reduction reactions in solution.

The term oxidation was first used to describe reactions in which metals react with oxygen in air to produce metal oxides. When iron is exposed to air in the presence of water, for example, the iron turns to rust—an iron oxide. When exposed to air, aluminum metal develops a continuous, transparent layer of aluminum oxide on its surface. In both cases, the metal acquires a positive charge by transferring electrons to the neutral oxygen atoms of an oxygen molecule. As a result, the oxygen atoms acquire a negative charge and form oxide ions (O2−). Because the metals have lost electrons to oxygen, they have been oxidized; oxidation is therefore the loss of electrons. Conversely, because the oxygen atoms have gained electrons, they have been reduced, so reduction is the gain of electrons. For every oxidation, there must be an associated reduction. Therefore, these reactions are known as oxidation-reduction reactions, or "redox" reactions for short.

Any oxidation must ALWAYS be accompanied by a reduction and vice versa.

Originally, the term reduction referred to the decrease in mass observed when a metal oxide was heated with carbon monoxide, a reaction that was widely used to extract metals from their ores. When solid copper(I) oxide is heated with hydrogen, for example, its mass decreases because the formation of pure copper is accompanied by the loss of oxygen atoms as a volatile product (water vapor). The reaction is as follows:

$\ce{Cu_2O (s) + H_2 (g) \rightarrow 2Cu (s) + H_2O (g)} \label{4.4.1}$

Oxidation-reduction reactions are now defined as reactions that exhibit a change in the oxidation states of one or more elements in the reactants by a transfer of electrons, which follows the mnemonic "oxidation is loss, reduction is gain", or "oil rig". The oxidation state of each atom in a compound is the charge an atom would have if all its bonding electrons were transferred to the atom with the greater attraction for electrons. Atoms in their elemental form, such as O2 or H2, are assigned an oxidation state of zero. For example, the reaction of aluminum with oxygen to produce aluminum oxide is

$\ce{ 4 Al (s) + 3O_2 \rightarrow 2Al_2O_3 (s)} \label{4.4.2}$

Each neutral oxygen atom gains two electrons and becomes negatively charged, forming an oxide ion; thus, oxygen has an oxidation state of −2 in the product and has been reduced. Each neutral aluminum atom loses three electrons to produce an aluminum ion with an oxidation state of +3 in the product, so aluminum has been oxidized. In the formation of Al2O3, electrons are transferred as follows (the small overset number emphasizes the oxidation state of the elements):

$4 \overset{0}{\ce{Al}} + 3 \overset{0}{\ce{O2}} \rightarrow \ce{4 Al^{3+} + 6 O^{2-} }\label{4.4.3}$

Equation $$\ref{4.4.1}$$ and Equation $$\ref{4.4.2}$$ are examples of oxidation–reduction (redox) reactions. In redox reactions, there is a net transfer of electrons from one reactant to another. In any redox reaction, the total number of electrons lost must equal the total of electrons gained to preserve electrical neutrality. In Equation $$\ref{4.4.3}$$, for example, the total number of electrons lost by aluminum is equal to the total number gained by oxygen:

\begin{align*} \text{electrons lost} &= \ce{4 Al} \, \text{atoms} \times {3 \, e^- \, \text{lost} \over \ce{Al} \, \text{atom} } \\[4pt] &= 12 \, e^- \, \text{lost} \label{4.4.4a} \end{align*}

\begin{align*} \text{electrons gained} &= \ce{6 O} \, \text{atoms} \times {2 \, e^- \, \text{gained} \over \ce{O} \, \text{atom}} \\[4pt] &= 12 \, e^- \, \text{gained} \label{4.4.4b}\end{align*}

The same pattern is seen in all oxidation–reduction reactions: the number of electrons lost must equal the number of electrons gained. An additional example of a redox reaction, the reaction of sodium metal with chlorine is illustrated in Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$.

In all oxidation–reduction (redox) reactions, the number of electrons lost equals the number of electrons gained.

## Assigning Oxidation States

Assigning oxidation states to the elements in binary ionic compounds is straightforward: the oxidation states of the elements are identical to the charges on the monatomic ions. Previously, you learned how to predict the formulas of simple ionic compounds based on the sign and magnitude of the charge on monatomic ions formed by the neutral elements. Examples of such compounds are sodium chloride (NaCl; Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$), magnesium oxide (MgO), and calcium chloride (CaCl2). In covalent compounds, in contrast, atoms share electrons. However, we can still assign oxidation states to the elements involved by treating them as if they were ionic (that is, as if all the bonding electrons were transferred to the more attractive element). Oxidation states in covalent compounds are somewhat arbitrary, but they are useful bookkeeping devices to help you understand and predict many reactions.

A set of rules for assigning oxidation states to atoms in chemical compounds follows.

Rules for Assigning Oxidation States

1. The oxidation state of an atom in any pure element, whether monatomic, diatomic, or polyatomic, is zero.
2. The oxidation state of a monatomic ion is the same as its charge—for example, Na+ = +1, Cl = −1.
3. The oxidation state of fluorine in chemical compounds is always −1. Other halogens usually have oxidation states of −1 as well, except when combined with oxygen or other halogens.
4. Hydrogen is assigned an oxidation state of +1 in its compounds with nonmetals and −1 in its compounds with metals.
5. Oxygen is normally assigned an oxidation state of −2 in compounds, with two exceptions: in compounds that contain oxygen–fluorine or oxygen–oxygen bonds, the oxidation state of oxygen is determined by the oxidation states of the other elements present.
6. The sum of the oxidation states of all the atoms in a neutral molecule or ion must equal the charge on the molecule or ion.

Nonintegral (fractional) oxidation states are encountered occasionally. They are usually due to the presence of two or more atoms of the same element with different oxidation states.

In any chemical reaction, the net charge must be conserved; that is, in a chemical reaction, the total number of electrons is constant, just like the total number of atoms. Consistent with this, rule 1 states that the sum of the individual oxidation states of the atoms in a molecule or ion must equal the net charge on that molecule or ion. In NaCl, for example, Na has an oxidation state of +1 and Cl is −1. The net charge is zero, as it must be for any compound.

Rule 3 is required because fluorine attracts electrons more strongly than any other element, for reasons you will discover in Chapter 6. Hence fluorine provides a reference for calculating the oxidation states of other atoms in chemical compounds. Rule 4 reflects the difference in chemistry observed for compounds of hydrogen with nonmetals (such as chlorine) as opposed to compounds of hydrogen with metals (such as sodium). For example, NaH contains the H ion, whereas HCl forms H+ and Cl ions when dissolved in water. Rule 5 is necessary because fluorine has a greater attraction for electrons than oxygen does; this rule also prevents violations of rule 2. So the oxidation state of oxygen is +2 in OF2 but −½ in KO2. Note that an oxidation state of −½ for O in KO2 is perfectly acceptable.

The reduction of copper(I) oxide shown in Equation $$\ref{4.4.5}$$ demonstrates how to apply these rules. Rule 1 states that atoms in their elemental form have an oxidation state of zero, which applies to H2 and Cu. From rule 4, hydrogen in H2O has an oxidation state of +1, and from rule 5, oxygen in both Cu2O and H2O has an oxidation state of −2. Rule 6 states that the sum of the oxidation states in a molecule or formula unit must equal the net charge on that compound. This means that each Cu atom in Cu2O must have a charge of +1: 2(+1) + (−2) = 0. So the oxidation states are as follows:

$\overset {\color{ref}{+1}}{\ce{Cu_2}} \overset {\color{ref}-2}{\ce{O}} (s) + \overset {\color{ref}0}{\ce{H_2}} (g) \rightarrow 2 \overset {\color{ref}0}{\ce{Cu}} (s) + \overset {\color{ref}+1}{\ce{H}}_2 \overset {\color{ref}-2}{\ce{O}} (g) \label{4.4.5}$

Assigning oxidation states allows us to see that there has been a net transfer of electrons from hydrogen (0 → +1) to copper (+1 → 0). Thus, this is a redox reaction. Once again, the number of electrons lost equals the number of electrons gained, and there is a net conservation of charge:

$\text{electrons lost} = 2 \, H \, \text{atoms} \times {1 \, e^- \, \text{lost} \over H \, \text{atom} } = 2 \, e^- \, \text{lost} \label{4.4.6a}$

$\text{electrons gained} = 2 \, Cu \, \text{atoms} \times {1 \, e^- \, \text{gained} \over Cu \, \text{atom}} = 2 \, e^- \, \text{gained} \label{4.4.6b}$

Remember that oxidation states are useful for visualizing the transfer of electrons in oxidation–reduction reactions, but the oxidation state of an atom and its actual charge are the same only for simple ionic compounds. Oxidation states are a convenient way of assigning electrons to atoms, and they are useful for predicting the types of reactions that substances undergo.

Example $$\PageIndex{1}$$: Oxidation States

Assign oxidation states to all atoms in each compound.

1. sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)
2. methanol (CH3OH)
3. ammonium sulfate [(NH4)2SO4]
4. magnetite (Fe3O4)
5. ethanoic (acetic) acid (CH3CO2H)

Given: molecular or empirical formula

Strategy:

Begin with atoms whose oxidation states can be determined unambiguously from the rules presented (such as fluorine, other halogens, oxygen, and monatomic ions). Then determine the oxidation states of other atoms present according to rule 1.

Solution:

a. We know from rule 3 that fluorine always has an oxidation state of −1 in its compounds. The six fluorine atoms in sulfur hexafluoride give a total negative charge of −6. Because rule 1 requires that the sum of the oxidation states of all atoms be zero in a neutral molecule (here SF6), the oxidation state of sulfur must be +6:

[(6 F atoms)(−1)] + [(1 S atom) (+6)] = 0

b. According to rules 4 and 5, hydrogen and oxygen have oxidation states of +1 and −2, respectively. Because methanol has no net charge, carbon must have an oxidation state of −2:

[(4 H atoms)(+1)] + [(1 O atom)(−2)] + [(1 C atom)(−2)] = 0

c. Note that (NH4)2SO4 is an ionic compound that consists of both a polyatomic cation (NH4+) and a polyatomic anion (SO42−) (see Table 2.4 "Common Polyatomic Ions and Their Names"). We assign oxidation states to the atoms in each polyatomic ion separately. For NH4+, hydrogen has an oxidation state of +1 (rule 4), so nitrogen must have an oxidation state of −3:

[(4 H atoms)(+1)] + [(1 N atom)(−3)] = +1, the charge on the NH4+ ion

For SO42−, oxygen has an oxidation state of −2 (rule 5), so sulfur must have an oxidation state of +6:

[(4 O atoms) (−2)] + [(1 S atom)(+6)] = −2, the charge on the sulfate ion

d. Oxygen has an oxidation state of −2 (rule 5), giving an overall charge of −8 per formula unit. This must be balanced by the positive charge on three iron atoms, giving an oxidation state of +8/3 for iron:

[(4 O atoms)(−2)]+[(3 Fe atoms)$$\left (+{8 \over 3} \right )$$]= 0

Fractional oxidation states are allowed because oxidation states are a somewhat arbitrary way of keeping track of electrons. In fact, Fe3O4 can be viewed as having two Fe3+ ions and one Fe2+ ion per formula unit, giving a net positive charge of +8 per formula unit. Fe3O4 is a magnetic iron ore commonly called magnetite. In ancient times, magnetite was known as lodestone because it could be used to make primitive compasses that pointed toward Polaris (the North Star), which was called the “lodestar.”

e. Initially, we assign oxidation states to the components of CH3CO2H in the same way as any other compound. Hydrogen and oxygen have oxidation states of +1 and −2 (rules 4 and 5, respectively), resulting in a total charge for hydrogen and oxygen of

[(4 H atoms)(+1)] + [(2 O atoms)(−2)] = 0

So the oxidation state of carbon must also be zero (rule 6). This is, however, an average oxidation state for the two carbon atoms present. Because each carbon atom has a different set of atoms bonded to it, they are likely to have different oxidation states. To determine the oxidation states of the individual carbon atoms, we use the same rules as before but with the additional assumption that bonds between atoms of the same element do not affect the oxidation states of those atoms. The carbon atom of the methyl group (−CH3) is bonded to three hydrogen atoms and one carbon atom. We know from rule 4 that hydrogen has an oxidation state of +1, and we have just said that the carbon–carbon bond can be ignored in calculating the oxidation state of the carbon atom. For the methyl group to be electrically neutral, its carbon atom must have an oxidation state of −3. Similarly, the carbon atom of the carboxylic acid group (−CO2H) is bonded to one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Again ignoring the bonded carbon atom, we assign oxidation states of −2 and +1 to the oxygen and hydrogen atoms, respectively, leading to a net charge of

[(2 O atoms)(−2)] + [(1 H atom)(+1)] = −3

To obtain an electrically neutral carboxylic acid group, the charge on this carbon must be +3. The oxidation states of the individual atoms in acetic acid are thus

$\underset {-3}{C} \overset {+1}{H_3} \overset {+3}{C} \underset {-2}{O_2} \overset {+1}{H}$

Thus the sum of the oxidation states of the two carbon atoms is indeed zero.

Exercise $$\PageIndex{1}$$: Oxidation States

Assign oxidation states to all atoms in each compound.

1. barium fluoride (BaF2)
2. formaldehyde (CH2O)
3. potassium dichromate (K2Cr2O7)
4. cesium oxide (CsO2)
5. ethanol (CH3CH2OH)

Ba, +2; F, −1

C, 0; H, +1; O, −2

K, +1; Cr, +6; O, −2

Cs, +1; O, −½

C, −3; H, +1; C, −1; H, +1; O, −2; H, +1

## Types of Redox Reactions

Many types of chemical reactions are classified as redox reactions, and it would be impossible to memorize all of them. However, there are a few important types of redox reactions that you are likely to encounter and should be familiar with. These include:

• Synthesis reactions: The formation of any compound directly from the elements is a redox reaction, for example, the formation of water from hydrogen and oxygen: $\ce{ 2H_2(g) + O_2(g) \rightarrow 2H_2O(g)}$
• Decomposition reactions: Conversely, the decomposition of a compound to its elements is also a redox reaction, as in the electrolysis of water: $\ce{2H_2O(l) \rightarrow 2H_2(g) + O_2(g)}$
• Combustion reactions: Many chemicals combust (burn) with oxygen. In particular, organic chemicals such as hydrocarbons burn in the presence of oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water as the products: $\ce{ CH_4(g) + 2O_2(g) \rightarrow CO_2(g) + 2H_2O(g)}$

The following sections describe another important class of redox reactions: single-displacement reactions of metals in solution.