Thermite Reaction: aluminum reacts with iron(III) oxide

The reaction of iron (III) oxide and aluminum is initiated by heat released from a small amount "starter mixture".  This reaction is an oxidation-reduction reaction, a single replacement reaction, producing great quantities of heat (flame and sparks) and a stream of molten iron and aluminum oxide which pours out of a hole in the bottom of the pot into sand. 

The balanced chemical equation for this reaction is:

2 Al(s) + Fe2O3(s) --> 2Fe(s) + Al2O3(s)  + 850 kJ/mol

Curriculum Notes 

This chemical reaction can be used to demonstrate an exothermic reaction, a single replacement or oxidation-reduction reaction, and the connection between H calculated for this reaction using heats of formation and Hess' Law and calculating H for this reaction using qrxn = mc∆T and the moles of limiting reactant. This reaction also illustrates the role of activation energy in a chemical reaction. The thermite mixture must be raised to a high temperature before it will react.  

To determine how much thermal energy is released in this reaction, heats of formation values and Hess' Law can be used.

SubstancedeltaHfo (kJ/mol)
Fe (s)0

By definition, the deltaHfo of an element in its standard state is zero.  

2 Al(s) + Fe2O3(s) --> 2Fe (s) + Al2O3 (s

The deltaH for this reaction is the sum of the deltaHfo's of the products - the sum of the deltaHfo's of the reactants (multiplying each by their stoichiometric coefficient in the balanced reaction equation), i.e.:

deltaHorxn = (1 mol)(deltaHfoAl2O3) + (2 mol)(deltaHfoFe) - (1 mol)(deltaHfoFe2O3) - (2 mol)(deltaHfoAl)

deltaHorxn = (1 mol)(-1,669.8 kJ/mol) + (2 mol)(0) - (1 mol)(-822.2 kJ/mol) - (2mol)(0 kJ/mol)

deltaHorxn = -847.6 kJ

The melting point of iron is 1530°C (or 2790°F).

Learning Objectives

1The chemical reaction in this demonstration is an example of an exothermic reaction, Hrxn is negative. 

2.  In order to initiate this reaction, an activation energy (heat) must be supplied.

3.  The chemical reaction releases heat and the "surroundings" gain heat.

4.  Heats of formation values, ∆H°fcan be used to calculate ∆H of this reaction using Hess' Law.

5.  ∆H of this reaction can be estimated by measuring the mass of the thermite mixture, and knowing the initial and final temperature and the specific heat, calculating qreaction, then calculating ∆H reaction.

6.  This reaction illustrate the metallurgy of iron. 

This demonstration may only be performed by a trained chemistry lecture demonstrator. The chemical reaction in this demonstration is very exothermic and extreme safety measures must be followed to minimize the risk to members of the audience.  Use only the minimum amount of reactants appropriate to illustrate the reaction. Allow about 10 minutes to perform this demo.

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

The equation for this reaction is: 2 Al(s) + Fe2O3(s) --> 2Fe (s) + Al2O3 (s). The large decrease in the energy of the system is a consequence of the high charge concentration on the aluminum ion due to its small size. The oxide ions can approach the aluminum ion more closely than than they can approach the ferric ion. Thus coulombic forces stabilize the aluminum oxide relative to the ferric oxide. The enthalpy change of this reaction is about -850 kJ/mol! The heat generated melts the iron and the aluminum oxide which pour out of the hole in the bottom of the pot. While they are liquid, they will usually separate out with the denser iron sinking to the bottom of the"puddle." After the liquid has solidified and cooled enough to handle, the aluminum oxide "slag" can usually be broken off of the iron, sometimes by simply dropping it on the floor a few times. 

Videos of this demonstration performed by chemists at universities are available on-line:

Oregon State University

Purdue University

University of Washington

  • thermite mixture (finely powdered iron (III) oxide and aluminum mixed in equimolar quantities)
  • thermite starter
  • magnesium strip about 15 cm long
  • a piece of filter paper 3 or cm in diameter
  • propane torch and striker
  • ring stand
  • 1 small ring
  • 1 larger ring
  • steel secondary containment unit (or another flower pot)
  • small flower pot
  • 5 gal. steel bucket filled with dry sand
  • blast shield
  • insulated gloves

Due to the extreme heat generated in this demonstration, particular care must be taken to follow all instructions carefully, particularly safety instructions. The setup consists of a small clay flowerpot in secondary containment (either the custom steel unit that we use or another flower pot) suspended by a ring over a steel bucket with several kg of dry sand in it. Another flower pot is embedded in the sand in the bucket to catch the molten iron and slag. A larger ring is used to keep the flower pot containing the reaction mixture from spilling if the ring clamp loosens. Inside to the flowerpot is a mixture of powdered aluminum and ferric oxide. In a small depression in the center of the thermite mixture is a small amount of "thermite starter" powder. I'm not sure what is in the powder. Inserted through the thermite starter powder into the thermite mixture is a strip of magnesium ribbon. To initiate the reaction, the lecture demonstrator ignites the magnesium ribbon with the propane torch. The magnesium ribbon ignites the thermite starter mixture, which in turn ignites the thermite mixture. In an extremely exothermic reaction, the aluminum reduces the iron in the ferric oxide. The heat generated is sufficient to melt the iron and the aluminum oxide. A stream of molten iron and aluminum oxide pours out of the hole in the bottom of the flowerpot into another flower pot in the sand in the bucket. 

Safety Precautions 
  • Only the lecture demonstrator may perform this demo.
  • The demonstrator should wear safety goggles.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy to extinguish any fires started by the molten iron and slag. But do not try to stop the thermite reaction once it has been initiated. You can't!
  • Be prepared to contain the resulting fire if some molten metal escapes your containment system.
  • Under no circumstances should the molten iron and slag be allowed to come into contact with water. A steam and/or hydrogen explosion could result.
  • Make sure that there is a blast shield directly in front of the demonstration apparatus.
  • Be sure that the flower pot in the sand in the bucket is directly beneath the hole in the bottom of the flowerpot.
  • Be sure that there is at least five centimeters of sand under the flower pot in the bucket of sand to provide adequate insulation between the molten iron and the tabletop. It is a good idea to move the tray as soon as it is cool enough to approach to avoid scorching the top of the table. You may have to move the tray several times as it cools.
  • Burning magnesium emits strongly in the UV region of the spectrum. If the blast shield is made out of polycarbonate (most are) it should protect the students by filtering out the harmful UV light. If the demonstrator is not looking at the demo through the shield, she should avoid looking directly at the burning magnesium.
  • If the thermite mixture does not ignite, the lecture demonstrator should wait a full minute before approaching the apparatus. Then she should place a few cubic centimeters of the starter powder in a small depression in the center of the thermite mixture, insert a 15 cm piece of magnesium ribbon about half way into the mixture, and ignite the magnesium ribbon with the propane torch.
  • This reaction spatters small pieces of hot slag. Make sure that there are no easily combustible materials within 3 m of the demonstration.
  • The table on which the demonstration is performed should be at least 5 m from the front row of the class.
  • The demonstrator should immediately move 4 to 5 m away from the apparatus after igniting it.
  • This demo emits fumes with the distinctive odor of very hot metal. Perform this demonstration in a large room with good ventilation or outdoors within an appropriate marked area.


Shakhashiri, B. Z. In Chemical Demonstrations: A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry; The University of Wisconsin Press: 1983; Vol. 1, p 85-89. 

Arnáiz, F. J.; Aguado, R.; Arnáiz, S. Microscale Thermite Reaction J. Chem. Educ. 1998, 75(12), 1630. 

Prep. Notes 
  • The iron oxide and aluminum must be very finely divide for this demo to work.
  • Tamp the thermite mixture solidly into the bottom of the pot with the bottom of a small beaker.
  • Try to let this demo cool for at least 10 minutes before attempting to break it down.
  • The filter paper is placed in the bottom of the flower pot to keep the reaction mixture from spilling out of the hole in the bottom before the reaction is initiated.

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