Extracting iron and copper

Reactions of metals with oxygen

Many metals react with oxygen to make metal oxides. For example, magnesium burns rapidly in air:

Magnesium + oxygen → magnesium oxide

2Mg(s) + O2(g) → 2MgO(s)

The reactions are oxidation reactions because the metal gains oxygen.

Oxygen can be removed from metal oxides in chemical reactions. For example:

Zinc oxide + carbon → zinc + carbon dioxide

2ZnO(s) + C → 2Zn(s) + CO2(g)

In this reaction, carbon is oxidised because it gains oxygen. At the same time, copper oxide is reduced because oxygen is removed from it.

Oxidation is the gain of oxygen. Reduction is the loss of oxygen.


Unreactive metals such as gold are found in the Earth's crust as the uncombined elements. However, most metals are found combined with other elements to form compounds. Chemical reactions are needed to extract metals from their compounds.

Most metals are extracted from ores found in the Earth's crust. An ore is a rock that contains enough of a metal or a metal compound to make extracting the metal worthwhile.

Extracting copper

The extraction method used depends upon the metal's position in the reactivity series.

If a metal is less reactive than carbon, it can be extracted from its compounds by heating with carbon. Copper is an example of this. Molten copper can be produced from copper oxide by heating with carbon:

Copper oxide + carbon → copper + carbon dioxide

2CuO(s) + C(s) → 2Cu(l) + CO2(g)

Metal oxide + carbon → metal + carbon dioxide

For example,

Copper oxide is reduced as carbon is oxidised, so this is an example of a redox reaction.

The table summarises the extraction methods used for different metals.

Table of metals in order of ease of extraction and the methods used.

Although an unreactive metal is found as the metal itself, chemical reactions are often needed to remove other elements that might contaminate it.

Extracting iron

Iron(III) oxide is reduced to molten iron when it reacts with carbon. One of the products is carbon monoxide:

iron(III) oxide + carbon → iron + carbon monoxide

Fe2O3(s) + 3CO(g) → 2Fe(l) + 3CO2(g)

This method of extraction works because carbon is more reactive than iron, so it can displace iron from iron compounds. Extracting a metal by heating with carbon is cheaper than using electrolysis.


In the reaction of iron(III) oxide with carbon, state which substance is reduced and which substance is oxidised.

Carbon gains oxygen, so it is oxidised. Iron(III) oxide loses oxygen, so it is reduced.