The reactivity series

In a reactivity series, the most reactive element is placed at the top and the least reactive element at the bottom. More reactive metals have a greater tendency to lose electrons and form positive ions.

A reactivity series of metals could include any elements. For example:

A list of elements from most reactive to least reactive: potassium, sodium, lithium, calcium, magnesium, aluminium, zinc, iron, copper, silver and gold.

A good way to remember the order of a reactivity series of metals is to use the first letter of each one to make up a silly sentence. For example: People Say Little Children Make A Zebra Ill Constantly Sniffing Giraffes.

Observations of the way that these elements react with water, acids and steam enable us to put them into this series.

The tables show how the elements react with water and dilute acids:

ElementReaction with water
PotassiumViolently
SodiumVery quickly
LithiumQuickly
CalciumMore slowly
ElementReaction with dilute acids
CalciumVery quickly
MagnesiumQuickly
ZincMore slowly
IronMore slowly than zinc
CopperVery slowly
SilverBarely reacts
GoldDoes not react

Note that aluminium can be difficult to place in the correct position in the reactivity series during these experiments. This is because its protective aluminium oxide layer makes it appear to be less reactive than it really is. When this layer is removed, the observations are more reliable.

Non-metals in the reactivity series

It is useful to place carbon and hydrogen into the reactivity series because these elements can be used to extract metals.

Here is the reactivity series including carbon and hydrogen:

A list of elements from most reactive to least reactive: potassium, sodium, lithium, calcium, magnesium, aluminium, carbon, zinc, iron, hydrogen, copper, silver and gold.

Note that zinc and iron can be displaced from their oxides using carbon but not using hydrogen. However, copper can be extracted using carbon or hydrogen.