Alkali Metal Reactivity

In this dramatic demonstration, lithium, sodium, and potassium react with water to produce hydrogen gas and the hydroxides of the metals. Lithium reacts fairly slowly, fizzing. Sodium reacts more quickly, generating enough heat to melt itself and to occasionally ignite the hydrogen gas, producing a yellow-orange flame characteristic of sodium. The potassium reacts violently, immediately bursting into a flame which has the characteristic violet color of potassium. If desired, phenolphthalein may be added to the water to indicate the basic nature of the hydroxide product. The solution turns pink as the metals react to form their hydroxides. These are all soft metals that can be cut with a lab spatula revealing a shiny surface characteristic of metals, but they all corrode quickly on exposure to air. They get softer and more reactive as you move down the period from lithium to sodium to potassium.

Curriculum Notes 

This demonstration is good for illustrating the chemical characteristics of metals and group trends. This demo can be tagged to the "Indicator Cylinders" demo for the discussion of acid and base anhydrides. Allow about 15 minutes for this demo.

Lead Time 
One day of lead time is required for this project.

The reaction of alkali metals with water is represented by the following equation: 2 M(s or l) + 2 H2O(l) --> 2 M(OH)2(aq) + H2(g) Where M is the alkali metal. The heat given off by this reaction immediately melts the sodium and potassium and is frequently sufficient to ignite the hydrogen gas produced:

2 H2(g) + O2(g--> 2 H2O(g

and to ignite the metals themselves, producing the metal oxide. 

4 M(s or l) + O2 (g) --> 2 M2O(s)

 The increasing vigor of the reaction as you move down the group is caused by the decreasing ionization energy of the metals.

  • three vials containing, respectively, small samples of lithium, sodium, and potassium immersed in mineral oil
  • 3 large glass cylinders about one-third filled with deionized water
  • 3 100 mm Petri dish covers
  • long forceps
  • a square piece of wire gauze
  • paper towels
  • a spatula and Petri dish for dividing any samples that might seem to be too large
  • dropper bottle of phenolphthalein solution (optional)
  • waste bottle and funnel

If desired, place a few dropperfuls of phenolphthalein solution in the water. Using forceps, remove a small piece of lithium from the vial in which it is immersed in mineral oil. Being careful not to touch the sample, wipe off the mineral oil with a paper towel. Again using forceps, drop the lithium into the cylinder containing a little water and immediately place the wire gauze screen over the mouth of the cylinder. When the reaction is complete, cover the glass cylinder with a Petri dish cover to prevent caustic alkali oxide vapors from escaping. Repeat this procedure with a sodium sample and then a potassium sample using the other glass cylinders. 

Safety Precautions 

All alkali metals are strong reducing agents that react strongly with water, including the water in your skin! Wear safety goggles. Avoid touching the metal samples. The reactions of sodium and potassium with water can be quite vigorous. Be sure to place the wire gauze over the mouth of the cylinders immediately to avoid spattering. Have an ABC fire extinguisher at hand to extinguish secondary fires, but do not attempt to extinguish an alkali metal fire using an ABC fire extinguisher. Instead, have a container of dry sand nearby to extinguish metal fires. When these metals ignite, which they frequently do during these reactions, they produce a dense, white, caustic cloud of metal oxide. Avoid breathing these fumes. Cover each cylinder as soon as the reaction is complete to contain any caustic alkali oxide vapors.

Prep. Notes 

Set up as in photo. When you break down this demo, be sure to pour the waste solution into the waste bottle before transporting it, because the cylinder can tip over very easily.

© Copyright 2012 Email: Randy Sullivan, University of Oregon Chemistry Department and UO Libraries Interactive Media Group