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Identifying Reaction Types

Discusses methods for identifying redox reactions from chemical equations.

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Identifying Reaction Types

The reaction of copper with nitric acid leaves a blue solution of copper 2+ ion behind

Credit: User:The mad scientist/Wikimedia Commons
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CopperReaction.JPG
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

What’s that blue stuff?

The reaction of copper wire with nitric acid produces a colorful mix of products that include copper(II) nitrate, nitrogen dioxide, and water. Copper salts are blue in solution, reflecting the rather unique arrangements of electrons in the  orbital as the copper ionizes from metallic copper.

Identifying Reaction Types

A redox reaction must involve a change in oxidation number for two of the elements involved in the reaction. The oxidized element increases in oxidation number, while the reduced element decreases in oxidation number.

Single-replacement reactions are redox reactions because two different elements appear as free element (oxidation number of zero) on one side of the equation and as part of a compound on the other side. Therefore, its oxidation number must change.

Zn is oxidized from Zn0 to Zn2+ and the H is reduced from H+ to H0

Combustion reactions are redox reactions because elemental oxygen (O2) acts as the oxidizing agent and is itself reduced.

Most combination and decomposition reactions are redox reactions since elements are usually transformed into compounds and vice-versa. The thermite reaction involves ferric oxide and metallic aluminum:

The thermite reaction involves the oxidation of aluminum and the reduction of iron

Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Marines
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC-07509.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Thermite grenade demonstration.[Figure2]

We see that the iron is reduced and the aluminum oxidized during the course of the reaction.

Watch a video of the thermite reaction:

So what types of reactions are not redox reactions? Double-replacement reactions such as the one below are not redox reactions because ions are simply recombined without any transfer of electrons.

Note that the oxidation numbers for each element remain unchanged in the reaction.

Acid-base reactions involve a transfer of a hydrogen ion instead of an electron. Acid-base reactions, like the one below, are also not redox reactions.

Again, the transfer of an H+ ion leaves the oxidation numbers unaffected. In summary, redox reactions can always be recognized by a change in oxidation number of two of the atoms in the reaction. Any reaction in which no oxidation numbers change is not a redox reaction.


  1. Why is the Zn + HCl reaction a redox reaction?
  2. Why is the sodium sulfate + barium nitrate reaction not a redox reaction?
  3. Does the transfer of H+ affect oxidation numbers?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: User:The mad scientist/Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CopperReaction.JPG; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Marines; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC-07509.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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