Students reduce iron(III) oxide with carbon on a match head to produce iron in this small scale example of metal extraction. The experiment can be used to highlight aspects of the reactivity series.
This experiment can easily be carried out on an individual basis by students. The experiment itself is very quick to do provided that the apparatus and chemicals are already set out around the laboratory.
Each student (or pair of students) will need:
Match (non-safety) (Note 1)
Tongs (crucible tongs)
Weighing boat (small white plastic ones are ideal)
Students will also need access to:
Heat resistant mat
Magnet (e.g. bar magnet)
Iron(III) oxide powder (Note 2)
Sodium carbonate powder (IRRITANT) (Note 2)
Water (Note 2)
Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.
Health & Safety and Technical notes
Wear eye protection.
Iron(III) oxide powder, Fe2O3(s) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Sodium carbonate powder, Na2CO3(s), (IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
1 The experiment works best with non-safety matches. These are often referred to as ‘strike anywhere’ matches and have a pinkish-red head.
2 Small amounts (a few spatula measures are sufficient) of each of the powders can be provided in, for example, Petri dishes or watch glasses. Groups of students can share the chemicals. The water can be provided in a small beaker.
a Dip the head of a match in water to moisten it.
b Roll the damp match head first in sodium carbonate powder, then in iron(III) oxide powder.
c Hold the match in a pair of tongs. Put the head of the match into a blue Bunsen flame (air-hole open). The match will flare and burn. Do not allow the match to burn more than half way along its length.
d Allow the match to cool for about 30 seconds.
e Use a spatula to crush the charred part of the match into a small plastic weighing boat.
f Move a magnet around under the weighing boat – some of the small particles will move around in the weighing boat following the track of the magnet. Do not dip the magnet into the particles directly, unless you have first wrapped the magnet in cling film – any pieces of iron will stick to the magnet and will be difficult to clean off.
A simple equation for the reaction would be:
Iron(III) oxide + carbon → iron + carbon dioxide
2Fe2O3(s) + 3C(s) → 4Fe(s) + 3CO2(g)
Carbon is more reactive than iron. The iron oxide is reduced by the carbon (the oxygen is removed) to form metallic iron.
The sodium carbonate fuses easily and brings the iron oxide into close contact with the carbon.
Health & Safety checked, 2016
This Practical Chemistry resource was developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
© Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry
Page last updated October 2015
This is a resource from the Practical Chemistry project, developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry. This collection of over 200 practical activities demonstrates a wide range of chemical concepts and processes. Each activity contains comprehensive information for teachers and technicians, including full technical notes and step-by-step procedures. Practical Chemistry activities accompany Practical Physics and Practical Biology.
The experiment is also part of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Continuing Professional Development course: Chemistry for non-specialists