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Oxidation–Reduction Reactions for AP Chemistry

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 1, 2011

Practice problems for these concepts can be found at:

Oxidation–reduction reactions, commonly called redox reactions, are an extremely important category of reaction. Redox reactions include combustion, corrosion, respiration, photosynthesis, and the reactions involved in electrochemical cells (batteries). The driving force involved in redox reactions is the exchange of electrons from a more active species to a less active one. You can predict the relative activities from a table of activities or a halfreaction table. Chapter 16 goes into depth about electrochemistry and redox reactions.

The AP free-response booklet includes a table of half-reactions, which you may use for help during this part of the exam. A similar table can be found in the back of this book. Alternatively, you may wish to memorize the common oxidizing and reducing agents.

Redox is a term that stands for reduction and oxidation. Reduction is the gain of electrons and oxidation is the loss of electrons. For example, suppose a piece of zinc metal is placed in a solution containing the blue Cu2+ cation. Very quickly a reddish solid forms on the surface of the zinc metal. That substance is copper metal. As the copper metal is deposited, the blue color of the solution begins to fade. At the molecular level, the more active zinc metal is losing electrons to form the Zn2+ cation, and the Cu2+ ion is gaining electrons to form the less active copper metal. These two processes can be shown as:

The electrons that are being lost by the zinc metal are the same electrons that are being gained by the copper(II) ion. The zinc metal is being oxidized and the copper(II) ion is being reduced. Further discussions on why reactions such as these occur can be found in the section on single-displacement reactions later in this chapter.

Something must cause the oxidation (taking the electrons) and that substance is called the oxidizing agent (the reactant being reduced). In the example above, the oxidizing agent is the Cu2+ ion. The reactant undergoing oxidation is called the reducing agent because it is furnishing the electrons that are being used in the reduction half-reaction. Zinc metal is the reducing agent above. The two half-reactions, oxidation and reduction, can be added together to give you the overall redox reaction. When doing this, the electrons must cancel—that is, there must be the same number of electrons lost as electrons gained:

On the AP exam, you might be asked to identify what is being oxidized and reduced or to identify the oxidizing and reducing agents. (Be careful.)

In these redox reactions there is a simultaneous loss and gain of electrons. In the oxidation reaction (commonly called a half-reaction) electrons are being lost, but in the reduction half-reaction those very same electrons are being gained. So, in redox reactions electrons are being exchanged as reactants are being converted into products. This electron exchange may be direct, as when copper metal plates out on a piece of zinc, or it may be indirect, as in an electrochemical cell (battery).

Another way to determine what is being oxidized and what is being reduced is by looking at the change in oxidation numbers of the reactant species. (See the Basics chapter for a discussion of oxidation numbers and how to calculate them.) On the AP exam you may be asked to assign oxidation numbers and/or identify changes in terms of oxidation numbers. Oxidation is indicated by an increase in oxidation number. In the example above, the Zn metal went from an oxidation state of zero to +2. Reduction is indicated by a decrease in oxidation number. Cu2+ went from an oxidation state of +2 to zero. In order to figure out whether a particular reaction is a redox reaction, write the net ionic equation. Then determine the oxidation numbers of each element in the reaction. If one or more elements have changed oxidation number, it is a redox reaction.

There are several types of redox reaction that are given specific names. In the next few pages we will examine some of these types of redox reaction.

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