What is Oxidation? – Definition, Process & Examples

In this lesson, learn about oxidation and its process, and examine some examples of oxidation, including the mystery of browning fruit. Then, measure what you’ve learned with a quiz.
Definition of Oxidation
If you are a fan of oxygen-based cleaners, or grateful for the sterilizing powers of hydrogen peroxide, then you have oxidation to thank. On the other hand, if you’ve ever had to deal with a rusty car or toss out browned fruit, then you have oxidation to blame. Oxidation may be a spontaneous process or it may be started artificially. Sometimes it is helpful, and sometimes it is very destructive.
At its most basic level, oxidation is the loss of electrons. It happens when an atom or compound loses one or more electrons. Some elements lose electrons more easily than others. These elements are said to be easily oxidized. Generally speaking, metals including sodium, magnesium, and iron are easily oxidized.
Elements that are more reluctant to lose electrons are not easily oxidized; they hold onto their electrons very tightly. Nonmetals including nitrogen, oxygen, and chlorine are not easily oxidized.
The Process of Oxidation
When an atom or compound is oxidized, its properties change. For example, when an iron object undergoes oxidation, it is transformed because it has lost electrons. Unoxidized iron is a strong, structurally sound metal, while oxidized iron is a brittle, reddish powder. The diagram below illustrates what happens to an atom of iron as it is oxidized:
oxidation of iron
Once iron has been oxidized, it carries a charge. Because it lost three electrons, it now has a positive charge of three. This positive three charge is represented by the number three and a positive sign (3+) written as a superscript to the right of the Iron (Fe) symbol.
Iron is very easily oxidized, which is why it’s important to minimize the exposure of iron to oxygen and moisture. Iron will continue to lose electrons to oxygen as long as oxygen is present.
Oxidation-Reduction (Redox) Reactions
Most of the time, oxidation occurs in tandem with a process called reduction. Reduction is the process of gaining one or more electrons. In an oxidation-reduction, or redox, reaction, one atom or compound will steal electrons from another atom or compound.
A classic example of a redox reaction is rusting. When rusting happens, oxygen steals electrons from iron. Oxygen gets reduced while iron gets oxidized. The result is a compound called iron oxide, or rust. Unoxidized, or pure, iron is distinctly different from the oxidized form that occurs in rust.
There is a very handy mnemonic device for remembering the differences between oxidation and reduction — LEO the lion says GER. The letters in LEO and GER stand for Loss of Electrons is Oxidation, Gain of Electrons is Reduction.
Examples of Oxidation
Let’s talk again about that browned fruit you’d rather not eat. When the soft insides of fruit are exposed to oxygen in the air, they become oxidized, causing them to break down and turn brown. The process is very similar to rusting; oxygen steals electrons from atoms and compounds. The unoxidized form of these compounds is different from the oxidized form that is, unfortunately, unappealing to eat.
On the food tangent, many ‘superfoods’ are advertised as containing antioxidants. An antioxidant is a compound that reduces the oxidation of other compounds. In theory, consuming antioxidants will help our bodies fight off the harmful effects of oxidation, keeping our cells and enzymes happy and healthy. In other words, eating things like blueberries, blackberries, walnuts, and cranberries will help our insides from looking like browning fruit.
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