A reducing agent (also called a reductant or reducer) is an element (such as calcium) or compound that loses (or "donates") an electron to another chemical species in a redox chemical reaction. Since the reducing agent is losing electrons, it is said to have been oxidized.
If any chemical is an electron donor (reducing agent), another must be an electron recipient (oxidizing agent). A reducing agent is oxidized because it loses electrons in the redox reaction.
Thus, reducing agents "reduce" (or, seen another way, are "oxidized" by) oxidizing agents, and oxidizers "oxidize" (that is, are "reduced" by) reducers.
In their pre-reaction states, reducers have more electrons (that is, they are by themselves reduced) and oxidizers have fewer electrons (that is, they are by themselves oxidized). A reducing agent typically is in one of its lower possible oxidation states and is known as the electron donor. Examples of reducing agents include the earth metals, formic acid, oxalic acid, and sulfite compounds.
For example, consider the overall reaction for aerobic cellular respiration:
- C6H12O6(s) + 6O2(g) → 6CO2(g) + 6H2O(l)
In organic chemistry, reduction more specifically refers to the addition of hydrogen to a molecule, though the aforementioned definition still applies. For example, benzene is reduced to cyclohexane in the presence of a platinum catalyst:
- C6H6 + 3 H2 → C6H12
In organic chemistry, good reducing agents are reagents that deliver H2.
Historically, reduction referred to the removal of oxygen from a compound, hence the name 'reduction'. The modern sense of donating electrons is a generalisation of this idea, acknowledging that other components can play a similar chemical role to oxygen.
Consider the following reaction:
- 2 [Fe(CN)6]4− + Cl
2 → 2 [Fe(CN)6]3− + 2 Cl−
The reducing agent in this reaction is ferrocyanide ([Fe(CN)6]4−). It donates an electron, becoming oxidized to ferricyanide ([Fe(CN)6]3−). Simultaneously, the oxidizer chlorine is reduced to chloride.
Strong reducing agents easily lose (or donate) electrons. An atom with a relatively large atomic radius tends to be a better reductant. In such species, the distance from the nucleus to the valence electrons is so long that these electrons are not strongly attracted. These elements tend to be strong reducing agents. Good reducing agents tend to consist of atoms with a low electronegativity, the ability of an atom or molecule to attract bonding electrons, and species with relatively small ionization energies serve as good reducing agents too. "The measure of a material to oxidize or lose electrons is known as its oxidation potential". The table below shows a few reduction potentials that could easily be changed to oxidation potential by simply reversing the sign. Reducing agents can be ranked by increasing strength by ranking their oxidation potentials. The reducing agent is stronger when it has a more positive oxidation potential and weaker when it has a negative oxidation potential. The following table provides the reduction potentials of the indicated reducing agent at 25 °C.
To tell which is the strongest reducing agent, one can change the sign of its respective reduction potential to make it oxidation potential. The bigger the number, the stronger the reducing agent. For example, among Na, Cr, Cu and Cl−, Na is the strongest reducing agent and Cl− is the weakest one.
Some elements and compounds can be both reducing or oxidizing agents. Hydrogen gas is a reducing agent when it reacts with non-metals and an oxidizing agent when it reacts with metals.
- 2 Li(s) + H2(g) → 2 LiH(s)[a]
Hydrogen acts as an oxidizing agent because it accepts an electron donation from lithium, which causes Li to be oxidized.
- H2(g) + F2(g) → 2 HF(g)[b]
Hydrogen acts as a reducing agent because it donates its electrons to fluorine, which allows fluorine to be reduced.
Reducing agents and oxidizing agents are the ones responsible for corrosion, which is the "degradation of metals as a result of electrochemical activity". Corrosion requires an anode and cathode to take place. The anode is an element that loses electrons (reducing agent), thus oxidation always occurs in the anode, and the cathode is an element that gains electrons (oxidizing agent), thus reduction always occurs in the cathode. Corrosion occurs whenever there’s a difference in oxidation potential. When this is present, the anode metal begins deteriorating, given there is an electrical connection and the presence of an electrolyte.
Example of redox reaction
The formation of iron(III) oxide;
- 4Fe + 3O2 → 4Fe3+ + 6O2− → 2Fe2O3
In the above equation, the Iron (Fe) has an oxidation number of 0 before and 3+ after the reaction. For oxygen (O) the oxidation number began as 0 and decreased to 2−. These changes can be viewed as two "half-reactions" that occur concurrently:
- Oxidation half reaction: Fe0 → Fe3+ + 3e−
- Reduction half reaction: O2 + 4e− → 2 O2−
Iron (Fe) has been oxidized because the oxidation number increased. Iron is the reducing agent because it gave electrons to the oxygen (O2). Oxygen (O2) has been reduced because the oxidation number has decreased and is the oxidizing agent because it took electrons from iron (Fe). ferric
Common reducing agents
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- Lithium aluminium hydride (LiAlH4), a very strong reducing agent
- Nascent (atomic) hydrogen
- Hydrogen without or with a suitable catalyst e.g. a Lindlar catalyst
- Sodium amalgam (Na(Hg))
- Sodium-lead alloy (Na + Pb)
- Zinc amalgam (Zn(Hg)) (reagent for Clemmensen reduction)
- Sodium borohydride (NaBH4)
- Compounds containing the Fe2+ ion, such as iron(II) sulfate
- Compounds containing the Sn2+ ion, such as tin(II) chloride
- Sulfur dioxide (sometimes also used as an oxidizing agent), Sulfite compounds
- Dithionates, e.g. Na2S2O6
- Thiosulfates, e.g. Na2S2O3 (mainly in analytical chemistry)
- Iodides, e.g. KI (mainly in analytical chemistry)
- Hydrogen peroxide (H
2) – mostly an oxidant but can occasionally act as a reducing agent (typically in analytical chemistry.)
- Hydrazine (Wolff-Kishner reduction)
- Diisobutylaluminium hydride (DIBAL-H)
- Oxalic acid (C
- Formic acid (HCOOH)
- Ascorbic acid (C6H8O6)
- Reducing sugars
- Phosphites, hypophosphites, and phosphorous acid
- Dithiothreitol (DTT) – used in biochemistry labs to avoid S-S bonds
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Cyanides in hydrochemical metallurgical processes
- Carbon (C)
- Tris-2-carboxyethylphosphine hydrochloride (TCEP)
- Organic reduction
- Oxidizing agent
- Reducing equivalent
- "Electrode Reduction and Oxidation Potential Values". www.siliconfareast.com. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
- "Standard Electrode Potentials". hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
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- "Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight", Third Edition. Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones p. F76