Chemical Properties

Chemically, the metals differ from the nonmetals in that they form positive ions and basic oxides and hydroxides. Upon exposure to moist air, a great many undergo corrosion, i.e., enter into a chemical reaction; e.g., iron rusts when exposed to moist air, the oxygen of the atmosphere uniting with the metal to form the oxide of the metal. Aluminum and zinc do not appear to be affected, but in fact a thin coating of the oxide is formed almost at once, stopping further action and appearing unnoticeable because of its close resemblance to the metal. Tin, lead, and copper react slowly under ordinary conditions. Silver is affected by compounds such as sulfur dioxide and becomes tarnished when exposed to air containing them. The metals are combined with nonmetals in their salts, as in carbides, carbonates, chlorides, nitrates, phosphates, silicates, sulfides, and sulfates.

The Electromotive Series

On the basis of their ability to be oxidized, i.e., lose electrons, metals can be arranged in a list called the electromotive series, or replacement series. Metals toward the beginning of the series, like cesium and lithium, are more readily oxidized than those toward the end, like silver and gold. In general, a metal will replace any other metal, or hydrogen, in a compound that it precedes in the series, and under ordinary circumstances it will be replaced by any metal, or hydrogen, that it follows.


The electromotive series, is a list of metals whose order indicates the relative tendency to be oxidized, or to give up electrons; the list also includes the gas hydrogen. The electromotive series begins with the metal most easily oxidized, i.e., the metal with the greatest electron-donating tendency, and ends with the metal least easily oxidized. The tendency to be oxidized is not an absolute quantity; it can only be compared with the tendency of some other substance to be oxidized. In practice, the tendency to be oxidized, called the oxidation potential and expressed in volts, is measured relative to a standard hydrogen electrode, which is arbitrarily assigned an oxidation potential of zero. The oxidation potential measures the tendency of the half reaction M ? M+n + ne to occur, in which some metal M loses n electrons, e, and acquires a positive charge of +n. The more positive the oxidation potential, the more readily oxidation takes place. The electromotive series is thus a list of the metals in the order of their tendency to undergo the half reaction. The series is also called the replacement series, since it indicates which metals replace, or are replaced by, other metals (or hydrogen) in compounds. In general, a metal will replace any other metal lower in the series and will be replaced by any metal higher in the series. The order of some common metals in the electromotive series, starting with the most easily oxidized, is: lithium, potassium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, aluminum, zinc, chromium, iron, cobalt, nickel, lead, hydrogen, copper, mercury, silver, platinum, and gold. A list arranged according to oxidation potential and including not only metals but also all other elements and ions is called the electrochemical series.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright � 2006, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. more