We see below two metals that can be exposed to water. The picture on the left is of sodium, which has a violent reaction when it comes in contact with water. The picture on the right is of silver, a metal so unreactive with water that it can be made into drinking vessels. Both metals have a single (s) electron in their outer shell, so you would predict a similar reactivity from each. However, we have a tool that allows us to make better predictions about how certain elements will react with others.
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The Activity Series
Single-replacement reactions only occur when the element that is doing the replacing is more reactive than the element that is being replaced. Therefore, it is useful to have a list of elements in order of their relative reactivity. The activity series is a list of elements in decreasing order of their reactivity. Since metals replace other metals, while nonmetals replace other nonmetals, they each have a separate activity series. The table (PageIndex1) below is an activity series of most common metals, and the table (PageIndex2) is an activity series of the halogens.
|React with cold water, replacing hydrogen.|
|React with steam, but not cold water, replacing hydrogen.|
|Do not react with water. React with acids, replacing hydrogen.|
|Unreactive with water or acids.|
For a single-replacement reaction, a given element is capable of replacing an element that is below it in the activity series. This can be used to predict if a reaction will occur. Suppose that small pieces of the metal nickel were placed into two separate aqueous solutions: one of iron (III) nitrate and one of lead (II) nitrate. Looking at the activity series, we see that nickel is below iron, but above lead. Therefore, the nickel metal will be capable of replacing the lead in a reaction, but will not be capable of replacing iron.
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In the descriptions that accompany the activity series of metals, a given metal is also capable of undergoing the reactions described below that section. For example, lithium will react with cold water, replacing hydrogen. It will also react with steam and with acids, since that requires a lower degree of reactivity.