Extracting Metals

Many objects we use in our everyday lives are made of metal. These metals are found trapped in rocks within the Earth’s crust. Mining techniques are used to extract the ore containing the desired metal. After this, the metals are extracted from the rocks. This process is known as quarrying.

Extracting metals from rocks can lead to environmental damage. It involves setting up large quarries, which can result in the loss of natural habitats. The machinery used in the quarrying process also contributes to global warming.

An ore is a naturally occurring rock that contains a valuable metal or mineral that can be extracted. To extract a metal from its ore, a chemical reaction is necessary to separate the metal from other elements present in the ore.

  • You can’t actually see the metal in the ore, as the metal has bonded to another element to form a compound

One method of achieving this is through a displacement reaction. The reactivity series ranks elements by their relative reactivity. It is important to consider the reactivity series when using displacement reactions to extract metals, which is shown in the diagram below.

In the diagram, metals are listed in black, with the most reactive at the top and the least reactive at the bottom. The non-metals are in red.

Extracting Metals using Carbon

To extract lead from lead oxide, you can react lead oxide with carbon in a heat chamber. This is possible because lead is less reactive than carbon.

Lead oxide + carbonLead + Carbon dioxide

In this process, lead atoms in the lead oxide are replaced by carbon atoms. This separated lead from the compound and produced carbon dioxide.

However, displacement reactions with carbon can only be used to extract metals that are less reactive with carbon. For example:

  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Tin
  • Copper
  • Silver

The displacement reactions for these metals are:

  • Zinc oxide + carbon → Zinc + Carbon dioxide
  • Iron oxide + carbon → Iron + Carbon dioxide
  • Tin oxide + carbon → Tin + Carbon dioxide
  • Copper oxide + carbon Copper + Carbon dioxide
  • Silver oxide + carbon → Silver + Carbon dioxide

The metal oxide is in green and the separated metal is in red.

As gold is unreactive, it is often found naturally in its pure form rather than in a compound. So it does not require a displacement reaction for extraction.

Metals More Reactive Than Carbon

As outlined above, metals have to be separated from their oxides.

For example, iron may need to be separated from iron oxide. This process is also called reduction, which can be carried out using carbon. In this case, the oxide is reacted with carbon to form the metal required, as well as carbon dioxide.

If the metal is below carbon in the reactivity series, like zinc and iron, it can be extracted by reacting its compound with carbon. However, this does not work with all metals. If the metal is higher than carbon in the reactivity series (such as calcium), then it will require electrolysis for extraction.