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4.3: Precipitation Reactions

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  • Skills to Develop

    • To identify a precipitation reaction and predict solubilities.

    Because so many compounds are able to dissolve in water, many chemical reactions occur in aqueous solutions. Being in solution allows the dissolved molecules or ions to move around freely and react effectively with other dissolved species. In the case of ionic compounds, dissolving in aqueous solution also disrupts the ionic bonds that hold the material together in the solid state, making it much easier for those ions to react with other ions to form new compounds. In the following sections, we will examine three important classes of chemical reactions that occur in aqueous solution: precipitation (or exchange) reactions, acid-base reactions, and oxidation-reduction (or redox) reactions.

    Precipitation (Exchange) Reactions

    A precipitation reaction is a reaction that yields an insoluble product—a precipitate—when two solutions are mixed. Consider the reaction shown in the video below, in which a colorless solution of silver nitrate is mixed with a yellow-orange solution of potassium dichromate to give a reddish precipitate of silver dichromate:

    \[\ce{AgNO_3(aq) + K_2Cr_2O_7(aq) \rightarrow Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s) + KNO_3(aq)} \label{4.2.1}\]

    This unbalanced equation has the general form of an exchange reaction, in which the individual ions in the reactants switch partners to form new products:

    \[ \overbrace{\ce{AC}}^{\text{soluble}} + \overbrace{\ce{BD}}^{\text{soluble}} \rightarrow \underbrace{\ce{AD}}_{\text{insoluble}} + \overbrace{\ce{BC}}^{\text{soluble}} \label{4.2.2}\]

    The solubility and insoluble annotations are specific to the reaction in Equation \ref{4.2.1} and not characteristic of all exchange reactions (e.g., both products can be soluble or insoluble). Precipitation reactions are a subclass of exchange reactions that occur between ionic compounds when one of the products is insoluble. Because both components of each compound change partners, such reactions are sometimes also called double-displacement reactions. However, precipitation reactions are especially important among exchange reactions because 1) the formation of an insoluble solid tends to push the reaction toward completion, and 2) the solid product can be easily isolated from the reaction mixture by filtration. Two important uses of precipitation reactions are to isolate metals that have been extracted from their ores and to recover precious metals for recycling.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mixing Potassium Chromate and Silver Nitrate together to initiate a precipitation reaction (Equation \(\ref{4.2.1}\)).

    While full chemical equations show the identities of the reactants and the products and give the balanced mole ratios, they are less effective at describing what is actually occurring in solution among ionic species. In contrast, equations that show the hydrated species focus our attention on the chemistry that is taking place and allow us to see similarities between reactions that might not otherwise be apparent.

    Let’s consider the reaction of silver nitrate with potassium dichromate above. When aqueous solutions of silver nitrate and potassium dichromate are mixed, silver dichromate forms as a red solid. The overall balanced chemical equation for the reaction shows each reactant and product as undissociated, electrically neutral compounds:

    \[\ce{2AgNO_3(aq)} + \ce{K_2Cr_2O_7(aq)} \rightarrow \ce{Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s) }+ \ce{2KNO_3(aq)} \label{4.2.1a}\]

    Although Equation \(\ref{4.2.1a}\) gives the identity of the reactants and the products, it does not show the identities of the actual species in solution. Because ionic substances such as \(\ce{AgNO3}\) and \(\ce{K2Cr2O7}\) are strong electrolytes, they dissociate completely in aqueous solution to form ions. In contrast, because \(\ce{Ag2Cr2O7}\) is not very soluble, it separates from the solution as a solid. To find out what is actually occurring in solution, it is more informative to write the reaction as a total ionic equation showing which ions and molecules are hydrated and which are present in other forms and phases:

    \[\ce{2Ag^{+}(aq) + 2NO_3^{-} (aq) + 2K^{+}(aq) + Cr_2O_7^{2-}(aq) \rightarrow Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s) + 2K^{+}(aq) + 2NO_3^{-}(aq)}\label{4.2.2a}\]

    Note that \(\ce{K^+ (aq)}\) and \(\ce{NO3^{−} (aq)}\) ions are present on both sides of Equation \(\ref{4.2.2a}\) and their coefficients are the same on both sides. These ions are called spectator ions because they do not participate in the actual reaction. Canceling the spectator ions gives the net ionic equation, which shows only those species that participate in the chemical reaction:

    \[2Ag^+(aq) + Cr_2O_7^{2-}(aq) \rightarrow Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s)\label{4.2.3}\]

    Both mass and charge must be conserved in chemical reactions because the numbers of electrons and protons do not change. For charge to be conserved, the sum of the charges of the ions multiplied by their coefficients must be the same on both sides of the equation. In Equation \(\ref{4.2.3}\), the charge on the left side is 2(+1) + 1(−2) = 0, which is the same as the charge of a neutral \(\ce{Ag2Cr2O7}\) formula unit on the right side.

    By eliminating the spectator ions, we can focus on the chemistry that takes place in a solution. For example, the overall chemical equation for the reaction between silver fluoride and ammonium dichromate is as follows:

    \[2AgF(aq) + (NH_4)_2Cr_2O_7(aq) \rightarrow Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s) + 2NH_4F(aq)\label{4.2.4}\]

    The total ionic equation for this reaction is as follows:

    \[\ce{2Ag^{+}(aq)} + \cancel{\ce{2F^{-}(aq)}} + \cancel{\ce{2NH_4^{+}(aq)}} + \ce{Cr_2O_7^{2-}(aq)} \rightarrow \ce{Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s)} + \cancel{\ce{2NH_4^{+}(aq)}} + \cancel{\ce{2F^{-}(aq)}} \label{4.2.5}\]

    Because two \(\ce{NH4^{+}(aq)}\) and two \(\ce{F^{−} (aq)}\) ions appear on both sides of Equation \(\ref{4.2.5}\), they are spectator ions. They can therefore be canceled to give the net ionic equation (Equation \(\ref{4.2.6}\)), which is identical to Equation \(\ref{4.2.3}\):

    \[\ce{2Ag^{+}(aq) + Cr_2O_7^{2-}(aq) \rightarrow Ag_2Cr_2O_7(s)} \label{4.2.6}\]

    Notice that this is the same net ionic equation as the previous reaction we considered. If we look at net ionic equations, it becomes apparent that many different combinations of reactants can result in effectively the same reaction. For example, we can predict that silver fluoride could be replaced by silver nitrate in the preceding reaction without affecting the outcome of the reaction.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\): Balancing Precipitation Equations

    Write the overall chemical equation, the complete ionic equation, and the net ionic equation for the reaction of aqueous barium nitrate with aqueous sodium phosphate to give solid barium phosphate and a solution of sodium nitrate.

    Given: reactants and products

    Asked for: overall, complete ionic, and net ionic equations


    Write and balance the overall chemical equation. Write all the soluble reactants and products in their dissociated form to give the complete ionic equation; then cancel species that appear on both sides of the complete ionic equation to give the net ionic equation.


    From the information given, we can write the unbalanced chemical equation for the reaction:

    \[\ce{Ba(NO_3)_2(aq) + Na_3PO_4(aq) \rightarrow Ba_3(PO_4)_2(s) + NaNO_3(aq)} \nonumber \]

    Because the product is Ba3(PO4)2, which contains three Ba2+ ions and two PO43− ions per formula unit, we can balance the equation by inspection:

    \[\ce{3Ba(NO_3)_2(aq) + 2Na_3PO_4(aq) \rightarrow Ba_3(PO_4)_2(s) + 6NaNO_3(aq)}\nonumber \]

    This is the overall balanced chemical equation for the reaction, showing the reactants and products in their undissociated form. To obtain the complete ionic equation, we write each soluble reactant and product in dissociated form:

    \[ \ce{3Ba^{2+}(aq)} + \cancel{\ce{6NO_3^{-}(aq)}} + \cancel{\ce{6Na^{+} (aq)}} + \ce{2PO_4^{3-} (aq)} \rightarrow \ce{Ba_3(PO_4)_2(s)} + \cancel{\ce{6Na^+(aq)}} + \cancel{\ce{6NO_3^{-}(aq)}}\nonumber \]

    The six NO3(aq) ions and the six Na+(aq) ions that appear on both sides of the equation are spectator ions that can be canceled to give the net ionic equation:

    \[\ce{3Ba^{2+}(aq) + 2PO_4^{3-}(aq) \rightarrow Ba_3(PO_4)_2(s)} \nonumber \]

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mixing Silver Fluoride with Sodium Phosphate

    Write the overall chemical equation, the complete ionic equation, and the net ionic equation for the reaction of aqueous silver fluoride with aqueous sodium phosphate to give solid silver phosphate and a solution of sodium fluoride.


    overall chemical equation:

    \[\ce{3AgF(aq) + Na_3PO_4(aq) \rightarrow Ag_3PO_4(s) + 3NaF(aq) }\nonumber \]

    complete ionic equation:

    \[\ce{3Ag^+(aq) + 3F^{-}(aq) + 3Na^{+}(aq) + PO_4^{3-}(aq) \rightarrow Ag_3PO_4(s) + 3Na^{+}(aq) + 3F^{-}(aq) }\nonumber\]

    net ionic equation:

    \[\ce{3Ag^{+}(aq) + PO_4^{3-}(aq) \rightarrow Ag_3PO_4(s)} \nonumber\]

    So far, we have always indicated whether a reaction will occur when solutions are mixed and, if so, what products will form. As you advance in chemistry, however, you will need to predict the results of mixing solutions of compounds, anticipate what kind of reaction (if any) will occur, and predict the identities of the products. Students tend to think that this means they are supposed to “just know” what will happen when two substances are mixed. Nothing could be further from the truth: an infinite number of chemical reactions is possible, and neither you nor anyone else could possibly memorize them all. Instead, you must begin by identifying the various reactions that could occur and then assessing which is the most probable (or least improbable) outcome.

    The most important step in analyzing an unknown reaction is to write down all the species—whether molecules or dissociated ions—that are actually present in the solution (not forgetting the solvent itself) so that you can assess which species are most likely to react with one another. The easiest way to make that kind of prediction is to attempt to place the reaction into one of several familiar classifications, such as the three (precipitation, acid-base, and redox) that we will discuss in this chapter.

    Predicting Solubilities

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) gives guidelines for predicting the solubility of a wide variety of ionic compounds. To determine whether a precipitation reaction will occur, we identify each species in the solution and then refer to Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) to see which, if any, combination(s) of cation and anion are likely to produce an insoluble salt. In doing so, it is important to recognize that soluble and insoluble are relative terms that span a wide range of actual solubilities. We will discuss solubilities in more detail later, where you will learn that very small amounts of the constituent ions remain in solution even after precipitation of an “insoluble” salt. For our purposes, however, we will assume that precipitation of an insoluble salt is complete.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Guidelines for Predicting the Solubility of Ionic Compounds in Water
    Soluble Exceptions
    Rule 1 most salts that contain an alkali metal (Li+, Na+, K+, Rb+, and Cs+) or ammonium (NH4+)
    Rule 2 most salts that contain the nitrate (NO3) anion or the acetate (CH3CO2) anion
    Rule 3 most chloride, bromide, and iodide salts but not salts of certain metal ions located on the lower right side of the periodic table (e.g. Ag+, Pb2+, and Hg22+).
    Rule 4 most sulfate (SO42−) salts but not salts of the heavier alkaline earths (Ca2+, Sr2+, and Ba2+ in group 2), Ag+, Pb2+, and Hg22+
    Rule 5 most hydroxide (OH) salts are only slightly soluble (alkali metal hydroxides are fully soluble) but not salts of the transition metals and Al3+
    Insoluble Exceptions
    Rule 6 most sulfide (S2−) salts but not salts of the alkali metals (group 1), the heavier alkaline earths (Ca2+, Sr2+, and Ba2+ in group 2), and the NH4+ ion.
    Rule 7 most carbonate (CO32−) and phosphate (PO43−) salts but not salts of the alkali metals or the NH4+ ion.
    Rule 8 most fluoride (F) and chromate (CrO42−) salts but not salts of the alkali metals or the NH4+ ion.

    Just as important as predicting the product of a reaction is knowing when a chemical reaction will not occur. Simply mixing solutions of two different chemical substances does not guarantee that a reaction will take place. For example, if 500 mL of a 1.0 M aqueous NaCl solution is mixed with 500 mL of a 1.0 M aqueous KBr solution, the final solution has a volume of 1.00 L and contains 0.50 M Na+(aq), 0.50 M Cl(aq), 0.50 M K+(aq), and 0.50 M Br(aq). As you will see in the following sections, none of these species reacts with any of the others. When these solutions are mixed, the only effect is to dilute each solution with the other (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Effect of Mixing Aqueous KBr and NaCl Solutions. Because no net reaction occurs, the only effect is to dilute each solution with the other. (Water molecules are omitted from molecular views of the solutions for clarity.)

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Using the information in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), predict what will happen in each case involving strong electrolytes. Write the net ionic equation for any reaction that occurs.

    1. Aqueous solutions of barium chloride and lithium sulfate are mixed.
    2. Aqueous solutions of rubidium hydroxide and cobalt(II) chloride are mixed.
    3. Aqueous solutions of strontium bromide and aluminum nitrate are mixed.
    4. Solid lead(II) acetate is added to an aqueous solution of ammonium iodide.

    Given: reactants

    Asked for: reaction and net ionic equation


    1. Identify the ions present in solution and write the products of each possible exchange reaction.
    2. Refer to Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) to determine which, if any, of the products is insoluble and will therefore form a precipitate. If a precipitate forms, write the net ionic equation for the reaction.


    A Because barium chloride and lithium sulfate are strong electrolytes, each dissociates completely in water to give a solution that contains the constituent anions and cations. Mixing the two solutions initially gives an aqueous solution that contains Ba2+, Cl, Li+, and SO42− ions. The only possible exchange reaction is to form LiCl and BaSO4:


    B We now need to decide whether either of these products is insoluble. Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) shows that LiCl is soluble in water (rules 1 and 3), but BaSO4 is not soluble in water (rule 4). Thus BaSO4 will precipitate according to the net ionic equation

    \[Ba^{2+}(aq) + SO_4^{2-}(aq) \rightarrow BaSO_4(s)\]

    Although soluble barium salts are toxic, BaSO4 is so insoluble that it can be used to diagnose stomach and intestinal problems without being absorbed into tissues. An outline of the digestive organs appears on x-rays of patients who have been given a “barium milkshake” or a “barium enema”—a suspension of very fine BaSO4 particles in water.


    An x-ray of the digestive organs of a patient who has swallowed a “barium milkshake.” A barium milkshake is a suspension of very fine BaSO4 particles in water; the high atomic mass of barium makes it opaque to x-rays. Image used with permission from Wikipedia.

    1. A Rubidium hydroxide and cobalt(II) chloride are strong electrolytes, so when aqueous solutions of these compounds are mixed, the resulting solution initially contains Rb+, OH, Co2+, and Cl ions. The possible products of an exchange reaction are rubidium chloride and cobalt(II) hydroxide):


      B According to Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), RbCl is soluble (rules 1 and 3), but Co(OH)2 is not soluble (rule 6). Hence Co(OH)2 will precipitate according to the following net ionic equation:

      \(Co^{2+}(aq) + 2OH^-(aq) \rightarrow Co(OH)_2(s)\)

    2. A When aqueous solutions of strontium bromide and aluminum nitrate are mixed, we initially obtain a solution that contains Sr2+, Br, Al3+, and NO3 ions. The two possible products from an exchange reaction are aluminum bromide and strontium nitrate:


    B According to Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), both AlBr3 (rule 3) and Sr(NO3)2 (rule 2) are soluble. Thus no net reaction will occur.

    1. A According to Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), lead acetate is soluble (rule 2). Thus solid lead acetate dissolves in water to give Pb2+ and CH3CO2 ions. Because the solution also contains NH4+ and I ions, the possible products of an exchange reaction are ammonium acetate and lead(II) iodide:


      B According to Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), ammonium acetate is soluble (rules 1 and 2), but PbI2 is insoluble (rule 3). Thus Pb(C2H3O2)2 will dissolve, and PbI2 will precipitate. The net ionic equation is as follows:

      \(Pb^{2+} (aq) + 2I^-(aq) \rightarrow PbI_2(s) \)

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Using the information in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), predict what will happen in each case involving strong electrolytes. Write the net ionic equation for any reaction that occurs.

    1. An aqueous solution of strontium hydroxide is added to an aqueous solution of iron(II) chloride.
    2. Solid potassium phosphate is added to an aqueous solution of mercury(II) perchlorate.
    3. Solid sodium fluoride is added to an aqueous solution of ammonium formate.
    4. Aqueous solutions of calcium bromide and cesium carbonate are mixed.
    Answer a

    \(Fe^{2+}(aq) + 2OH^-(aq) \rightarrow Fe(OH)_2(s)\)

    Answer b

    \(2PO_4^{3-}(aq) + 3Hg^{2+}(aq) \rightarrow Hg_3(PO_4)_2(s)\)

    Answer c

    \(NaF(s)\) dissolves; no net reaction

    Answer d

    \(Ca^{2+}(aq) + CO_3^{2-}(aq) \rightarrow CaCO_3(s)\)

    Precipitation Reactions in Photography

    Precipitation reactions can be used to recover silver from solutions used to develop conventional photographic film. Although largely supplanted by digital photography, conventional film methods are often used for artistic purposes. Silver bromide is an off-white solid that turns black when exposed to light, which is due to the formation of small particles of silver metal. Black-and-white photography uses this reaction to capture images in shades of gray, with the darkest areas of the film corresponding to the areas that received the most light. The first step in film processing is to enhance the black/white contrast by using a developer to increase the amount of black. The developer is a reductant: because silver atoms catalyze the reduction reaction, grains of silver bromide that have already been partially reduced by exposure to light react with the reductant much more rapidly than unexposed grains.

    After the film is developed, any unexposed silver bromide must be removed by a process called “fixing”; otherwise, the entire film would turn black with additional exposure to light. Although silver bromide is insoluble in water, it is soluble in a dilute solution of sodium thiosulfate (Na2S2O3; photographer’s hypo) because of the formation of [Ag(S2O3)2]3− ions. Thus washing the film with thiosulfate solution dissolves unexposed silver bromide and leaves a pattern of metallic silver granules that constitutes the negative. This procedure is summarized in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). The negative image is then projected onto paper coated with silver halides, and the developing and fixing processes are repeated to give a positive image. (Color photography works in much the same way, with a combination of silver halides and organic dyes superimposed in layers.) “Instant photo” operations can generate more than a hundred gallons of dilute silver waste solution per day. Recovery of silver from thiosulfate fixing solutions involves first removing the thiosulfate by oxidation and then precipitating Ag+ ions with excess chloride ions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Outline of the Steps Involved in Producing a Black-and-White Photograph


    A complete ionic equation consists of the net ionic equation and spectator ions. Predicting the solubility of ionic compounds in water can give insight into whether or not a reaction will occur. The chemical equation for a reaction in solution can be written in three ways. The overall chemical equation shows all the substances present in their undissociated forms; the complete ionic equation shows all the substances present in the form in which they actually exist in solution; and the net ionic equation is derived from the complete ionic equation by omitting all spectator ions, ions that occur on both sides of the equation with the same coefficients. Net ionic equations demonstrate that many different combinations of reactants can give the same net chemical reaction. In a precipitation reaction, a subclass of exchange reactions, an insoluble material (a precipitate) forms when solutions of two substances are mixed. To predict the product of a precipitation reaction, all species initially present in the solutions are identified, as are any combinations likely to produce an insoluble salt.