Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

8.4: Classifying Chemical Reactions

  • Page ID
    221377
  • The reactions we have examined in the previous sections can be classified into a few simple types. Organizing reactions in this way is useful because it will assist us in predicting the products of unknown reactions. There are many different classifications of chemical reactions, but here we will focus on the following types: synthesis, decomposition, single replacement and double replacement. In addition, we will see that some of these reactions involve changes in the oxidation numbers of the reactants and products; these will be referred to as oxidation-reduction, or “redox” reactions (see figure below)

    Classification chemical reactions.jpg

    Figure 8.1. Classification of Chemical reactions

    The first type of reaction we will consider is a synthesis reaction (also called a combination reaction). In a synthesis reaction, elements or compounds undergo reaction and combine to form a single new substance. The reaction of sodium metal with chlorine gas to give sodium chloride is an example of a synthesis reaction where both reactants are elements.

    2 Na (s) + Cl2 (g) → 2 NaCl (s)

    In this reaction, sodium metal and chlorine gas have combined to yield (synthesize) the more complex molecule, sodium chloride. 

    In decomposition reactions, a single compound will break down to form two or more new substances. The substances formed can be elements, compounds, or a mixture of both elements and compounds. Two simple examples of decomposition reactions are shown below.

    Cu2S (s) → 2 Cu (s) + S (s)

    CaCO3 (s) → CaO (s) + CO2 (g)

    In a single-replacement reaction (also called a single-displacement reaction) an element and a compound will react so that their elements are switched. In other words, an element will typically displace another element from within a compound. As a general rule, metals will replace metals in compounds and non-metals will typically replace non-metals. An example of a single replacement reaction is shown below.

    Zn (s) + CuCl2 (s) → ZnCl2 (s) + Cu (s)

    In this example, elemental zinc has displaced the metal, copper, from copper(II) chloride to form zinc chloride and elemental copper. In the reactants, zinc was elemental and in the products, it is present within the compound, zinc chloride. Likewise, copper was present in a compound in the reactants and is elemental in the products.

    In another example, iron metal will react with an aqueous solution of copper sulfate to give copper metal and iron(II) sulfate.

    Fe (s) + CuSO4 (aq) → Cu (s) + FeSO4 (aq)

    In this reaction, elemental iron replaces copper in a compound with sulfate anion and elemental copper metal is formed; metal replaces metal. The tendency of metals to replace other metals in single-replacement reactions is often referred to as an activity series, as we will learn next semester.

    A double-replacement reaction (or double-displacement) two ionic compounds in aqueous solution switch anions and form two new compounds. In order for a chemical reaction to occur in a double-replacement reaction, one of the new compounds that is formed must be insoluble in water, forming a solid precipitate . If both of the new compounds which are formed are water-soluble, then no reaction has occurred (as we will learn later). An example of a double-replacement reaction is shown below.

    BaCl2 (aq) + Na2SO4 (aq) → BaSO4 (s) + 2 NaCl (aq)

    In this reaction, solid barium sulfate is formed as a precipitate. This is a chemical change and this is a valid chemical reaction.