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Displacement Reactions

The reactivity series is a way of ranking metals in order of their reactivity towards other substances. The series is typically based on how readily a metal can lose electrons and form positive ions, with more reactive metals being more likely to do so. The most reactive metals, such as potassium and sodium, are at the top of the series, while less reactive metals like gold and platinum are at the bottom.

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Displacement Reactions

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The reactivity series is a way of ranking metals in order of their reactivity towards other substances. The series is typically based on how readily a metal can lose electrons and form positive ions, with more reactive metals being more likely to do so. The most reactive metals, such as potassium and sodium, are at the top of the series, while less reactive metals like gold and platinum are at the bottom.

To generate the reactivity series, we can test the reactivity of metals by seeing how different metals react in displacement reactions. In this article, we will cover what displacement reactions are, their role in figuring out the reactivity series, how to predict the outcome, as well as learn about ionic equations and ‘redox’ reactions.

  • This article is about displacement reactions, as well as their formula.
  • We will start by analysing what displacing reactions are.
  • Then, we will see what ionic equations are.
  • To finish, we will study what are oxidation, reduction and redox reactions.

What are displacement reactions?

Displacement reactions are chemical reactions in which a more reactive metal (a metal with more tendency to lose electrons) displaces a less reactive metal from an aqueous solution of one of its salts.

This might sound really confusing but it just means that if one metal, e.g. magnesium, is more reactive than another metal within a compound, e.g. copper (II) ions in copper sulfate, then the more reactive metal will replace and kick out the less reactive metal ions in the compound. These metal ions then form the metal element in the solution.

Importantly, all displacement reactions are also redox reactions (oxidation-reduction reactions) as they involve the exchange of electrons.

Displacement reaction between magnesium and copper sulfate:

Magnesium is more reactive than copper, so magnesium replaces copper in the salt (it actually forms magnesium ions which react with the sulfate ions, and form magnesium sulfate)

$$Mg{(s)} + CuSO_{4}{(aq)} \rightarrow MgSO_{4}{(aq)} + Cu{(s)}$$

What do displacement reactions tell us?

Displacement reactions help us to order different metals by reactivity. So it is important in working out the reactivity series.

In the ‘Reactivity Series’ article, we covered two ways of figuring out which metals are more reactive than others by observing and comparing how vigorously a metal reacts with water and with acid. The more vigorously a metal reacts the more reactive it is.

However, you may notice that some of them react very similarly and are similarly reactive - e.g. magnesium, aluminium, zinc, and iron all have very slow reactions with water - so it is difficult to order those metals by reactivity accurately.

This is where displacement reactions come in really useful.

Because we know that a more reactive metal will always displace a less reactive metal from an aqueous solution of one of its salts, we can react [metal A] and [metal B compound] together to see if metal B is displaced (kicked out).

If it is, then metal A must be more reactive than metal B.

For instance, let’s look at the reaction between magnesium and zinc sulfate in an aqueous solution.

$$Mg(s) + ZnSO_4(aq) \rightarrow ?$$

In this reaction, magnesium displaces zinc ions in the salt, and so the zinc ions are displaced and form zinc metal. The sulfate ions do not change.

The full chemical equation for this reaction is:

$$Mg(s) + ZnSO_4(aq) \rightarrow MgSO_4(aq) + Zn(s)$$

As magnesium displaced zinc, we now know that magnesium is the more reactive metal. However, if we reacted zinc with magnesium sulfate, there would be no reaction. As a result, we know that zinc is less reactive than magnesium.

Displacement reactions do not only tell us information about the reactants, but they also have many important applications in chemistry, including the production of metals from their ores, the synthesis of new compounds, and the analysis of unknown compounds.

What is the equation for displacement reactions?

There are two types of displacement reactions: single and double replacement reactions. They both follow the same principle (a higher reactivity metal displaces or "kicks out" a lower reactivity metal from a compound), but look slightly different.

The formulas for single- and double-displacement reactions are as follows:

Single displacement reaction:

$$A + BC \rightarrow AC + B$$

A would be the higher reactivity metal that kicks out the lower reactivity metal, B.

Double displacement reaction:

$$AB + CD \rightarrow AD + BC$$

How do we predict the outcome of displacement reactions?

We can see if one metal will displace another metal in a displacement reaction by asking a couple of questions:

  • Is the metal that isn’t part of a compound more reactive than the metal that is part of a compound?
  • Is the metal compound (salt) in an aqueous solution (is the state symbol beside it (aq))?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then the two will react in a displacement reaction, and the metal element will displace the metal in the salt!

For instance, let’s take a look at the reaction between iron and lead (II) nitrate solution.

$$Fe(s) + Pb(NO_3)_2(aq) \rightarrow ?$$

Let’s answer the two questions together:

  • Is the metal that isn’t part of a compound more reactive than the metal that is part of a compound?
    • Yes, looking at the reactivity series, iron is more reactive than lead which is in a salt (lead nitrate).
  • Is the metal compound (salt) in an aqueous solution (is the state symbol beside it (aq))?
    • Yes, the lead nitrate is in an aqueous solution, as there is an (aq) beside it \(Pb(NO_3)_2(aq)\).

As a result, we know that the iron will displace the lead ions in the salt to form iron nitrate. The lead ions are displaced and so form lead metal, so it is simply in the solution as just lead.

The symbol equation for the reaction is:

$$Fe(s) + Pb(NO_3)_2(aq) \rightarrow Fe(NO_3)_2(aq) + Pb(s)$$

It might be helpful to think of it simply as the iron and lead swapping places.

Examples of displacement reactions

Single displacement reactions: when zinc metal is added to a solution of copper sulfate, the zinc displaces the copper from the compound, forming zinc sulfate and copper metal:

$$Zn + CuSO_4 \rightarrow ZnSO_4 + Cu$$

Double displacement reaction: when aqueous solutions of potassium iodide and lead nitrate are combined, the iodide ion and the nitrate ion switch places, forming solid lead iodide and aqueous potassium nitrate:

$$2KI (aq) + Pb(NO_3)_2 (aq) \rightarrow 2KNO_3 (aq) + PbI_2 (s)$$

Redox reaction: remember that all displacement reactions are redox reactions because there is an exchange of electrons. When magnesium metal is added to hydrochloric acid, the magnesium is oxidized to magnesium ions and hydrogen gas is produced, while the hydrogen ions are reduced to form hydrogen gas:

$$Mg + 2HCl \rightarrow MgCl_2 + H_2$$

Examples of halogen displacement reaction

Halogens are highly reactive non-metal elements. They are fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine, in group VIIA of the periodic table.

Halogen displacement reactions are very similar to metal displacement reactions, but instead of one metal displacing another, it is the more reactive halogen that displaces another halogen in a compound. Here are some examples of halogen displacement reactions:

Chlorine displacement: chlorine gas can displace bromine or iodine from their compounds. For example, when chlorine gas is bubbled through a solution of potassium bromide, the chlorine displaces the bromine to form potassium chloride and bromine gas:

$$Cl_2 (g) + 2KBr (aq) \rightarrow 2KCl (aq) + Br_2 (l)$$

Bromine displacement: Bromine can displace iodine from its compounds. For example, when bromine water is added to a solution of potassium iodide, the bromine displaces the iodine to form potassium bromide and iodine:

$$Br_2 (aq) + 2KI (aq) \rightarrow 2KBr (aq) + I_2 (s)$$

Fluorine displacement: Fluorine is the most reactive of all the halogens and can displace any of the other halogens from their compounds. For example, when fluorine gas is passed over a sample of iodine, the fluorine displaces the iodine to form iodine pentafluoride:

$$5F_2 (g) + 2I_2 (s) \rightarrow 2IF_5 (l)$$

Displacement Reactions, Halogen displacement reaction table, StudySmarterFig. . Table of halogen displacement reaction with product information.

Displacement reactions - Key takeaways

  • Displacement reactions are reactions in which a more reactive metal displaces a less reactive metal from an aqueous solution of one of its salts. We can use this to predict the outcome of a reaction between a metal element and a salt involving a different metal.

  • Displacement reactions can be used to find out which is the more reactive of two metals. So they can be used to construct the reactivity series.

  • Displacement reactions are redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Displacement Reactions

Displacement reactions are chemical reactions in which a more reactive meta(a metal with more tendency to lose electrons) displaces a less reactive metal from an aqueous solution of one of its salts. 

In a displacement reaction, a more reactive metal "kicks out" a less reactive metal that is part of a compound.

There are two types of displacement reactions: single and double displacement reactions.

A displacement reaction is a chemical reaction in which a more reactive meta(a metal with more tendency to lose electrons) displaces a less reactive metal from an aqueous solution of one of its salts. 

An example is the reaction between magnesium and copper sulfate: 

Magnesium is more reactive than copper, so magnesium replaces copper in the salt (it actually forms magnesium ions which react with the sulfate ions, and form magnesium sulfate) 

Mg(s) + CuSO4(aq) --> MgSO4(aq) + Cu(s)

Halogen displacement reactions are chemical reactions were a more reactive halogen "kicks out" a less reactive halogen that is forming a compound with another element.

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