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The Important Difference Between Oxidation and Reduction

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September 8, 2022
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Difference Between Oxidation and Reduction

It is necessary first to understand the meaning of these terms to comprehend the difference between oxidation and reduction. 

  1. Oxidation is the loss of electrons from a molecule or atom. 
  2. Reduction, on the other hand, is the gain of electrons by a molecule or atom. 

Originally, oxidation described reactions in which an element combines with oxygen. In these reactions, the element loses electrons and is said to be oxidized. It comes from the Latin oxidare, which means “to make acid.”

The term reduction represents responses in which an element gains electrons and is said to be reduced. It comes from the Latin reducer, “to lead back.” 

Oxidation and reduction occur in a redox reaction. In this process, one reactant is oxidized, called the oxidizing agent, meaning it loses an electron. The other is reduced, called the reducing agent, meaning it is gaining an electron. 

Why are Oxidation and Reduction Significant?

For cells to function correctly, there must be a constant flow of electrons. This flow of electrons is essential to many cellular processes, including energy production.

Oxidation and reduction are significant in cell biology and other areas of science, such as chemistry and engineering. For example, rust is the result of oxidation, while the process of reducing greenhouse gases can be accomplished through the reduction

There are a few key things to remember about oxidation and reduction:

  • Oxidation always involves the loss of electrons.
  • Reduction always consists of the gain of electrons.
  • Oxidation and reduction always occur together in a redox reaction.
  • The more electronegative an element is, the better it will be at oxidizing other substances.
  • The more electropositive an element is, the better it will be at reducing other substances.

Another way to remember the difference between oxidation and reduction is with the acronym OIL RIG:

O – Oxidation is the loss (of electrons)

I – Increase in oxidation number

L – Loss of electrons

R – Reduction is Gain (of electrons)

I – Increase in reduction number

G – Gain of electrons

Oxygen-atom Transfer Reactions

The following example shows how to use oxidation and reduction to describe an oxygen-atom transfer reaction:

In this reaction, the element iron is oxidized because it loses electrons. Conversely, the element chlorine is reduced because it gains electrons. 

Hydrogen-atom Transfer Reactions

Another type of reaction involving oxidation and reduction is a hydrogen-atom transfer reaction. In this reaction, hydrogen atoms are transferred from one molecule to another. 

The following example shows how to use oxidation and reduction to describe a hydrogen-atom transfer reaction:

  1. The oxidized molecule is losing hydrogen atoms.
  2. The reduced molecule is hydrogen atoms.

Electron Transfer Reactions

An electron transfer reaction is the most common reaction in which oxidation and reduction occur. The following example shows how to use oxidation and reduction to describe an electron transfer reaction:

  1. The element zinc is oxidized because it is losing electrons. 
  2. The element copper is reduced because it is gaining electrons. 

Generally, the more electronegative an element is, the better it will be at oxidizing other substances. The more electropositive an element is, the better it will be at reducing other substances.

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