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Copper and Nitric Acid Reaction | Cu + HNO3

Copper and Nitric Acid Reaction | Cu + HNO3

Copper reacts in two ways with nitric acid. But this reaction is different from typical metal - acid reaction because nitric acid is an oxidizing acid.


Cu + HNO3 reacts in different ways and give different products

According to the concentration of HNO3 acid solution, products given by the reaction with copper are different. In this tutorial, we discuss following topics.

Copper with dilute nitric acid reaction

Copper with concentrated nitric acid reaction

How to balance those reactions

Questions and safety



Both reaction are redox reactions and have to consider about their oxidation numbers when reactions are being balanced.



Reactants - Cu and HNO3

Now, we will study briefly about reactants, copper and HNO3.


Copper (Cu)

Copper is a reddish brown color metal and less reactive than other metals such as alkali metals and alkaline earth metals.


Nitric acid - HNO3

HNO3 is an oxoacid of nitrogen and a strong monobasic acid. HNO3 can behave as an oxidizing acid.



Dilute nitric acid and copper reaction | Cu + HNO3 = Cu(NO3)2 + NO + H2O

Dilute nitric acid reacts with copper and produce copper nitrate ( Cu(NO3)2 ), nitric oxide (NO) and water as products. In this reaction, copper is oxidized while nitric acid is reduced to nitric oxide.


After the reaction, solution which contains Cu(NO3)2 is blue color.


Balanced equation

3Cu(s) + 8HNO3(aq) → 3Cu(NO3)2(aq) + 2NO(g) + 4H2O(l)


Nitric oxide is a colorless gas and oxidation number of nitrogen is +2. So oxidation number of nitrogen is reduced from +5 to +2 while oxidation number of copper is increased from 0 to +2.

Nitric oxide is a neutral gas.




Concentrated nitric acid and copper reaction | Cu + HNO3 = Cu(NO3)2 + NO2 + H2O

Concentrated nitric acid reacts with copper and produce copper nitrate ( Cu(NO3)2 ), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas and water as products. In this reaction, copper is oxidized to its +2 oxidation state while nitric acid is reduced to nitrogen dioxide.


After the reaction, color of the solution which contains Cu(NO3)2 is blue.


Balanced equation

Cu(s) + 4HNO3(aq) → Cu(NO3)2(aq) + 2NO2(g) + 2H2O(l)


In this reaction too, copper is oxidized to its +2 oxidation state. But nitrogen in nitric acid is reduced from +5 to +4 by producing nitrogen dioxide which is a brown color and acidic gas.




Safety of people and instruments during the reaction

You are advised to read material safety data sheets (MSDS) of Cu, HNO3, NO, NO2 before you do this experiment.

When Cu reacts with nitric acid, NO or NO2 can be given as products according to the temperature and concentration of the acid solution. However, oxygen converts produced NO to NO2.

NO2 is very toxic gas and can cause many health issues including deaths if highly amount is inhaled. You can identify NO2 gas very easily because it is brown color and have a very unpleasnat smell.

So try to prevent as much as exposing to this hazardous gas in this experiment and anywhere when you work.



How to balance reactions of Cu + HNO3

Now, we are going to learn how to balance two reactions of copper and nitric acid. Already we have identified which atoms are oxidized and reduced in the reactions. Lets take the reaction of copper with dilute nitric acid.


How to balance reaction of Cu and dilute HNO3 acid

  1. Write down the oxidation numbers of atoms which have changed in the reaction (copper and nitrogen). Identify the differences of oxidation numbers in oxidation reaction (copper to copper +2 ion) and reduction reaction (nitrogen from +5 to +2). Oxidation number of nitrogen in nitrate ion in the right side of the reaction is +5 and not changed.

  2. Oxidation number difference of oxidation reaction is 2 and reducing rection is 3. Exchange the difference between two reaction. (See the figure)

  3. Then balance other atoms as usual balance methods.
How to balace HNO3 + Cu = Cu(NO3)2 + NO + H2O reaction




Questions about HNO3 and Cu reaction


what happens when you mix nitric acid with a metal?

Nitric acid can behave as an acid or an oxidizing acid. It depends on the concentration and temperature of the nitric acid solution. If very dilute nitric acid is mixed with a metal, it can show typical acid - base reaction by evolving hydrogen gas. But, if concentration and temperature of nitric acid is high, nitric acid can behave as an oxidizing acid and will form nitrogen dioxide or nitric oxide.



By the action of copper with dilute nitric acid a reddish brown fumes of nitrogen dioxide gas is evolved?

Yes. Nitrogen dioxide gas can be evolved. But, you have to use concentrated nitric acid. Otherwise, nitric oxide gas is evolved.


Why and how do you say nitric acid is an oxidizing acid from copper and nitric acid reaction?

In typical acid metal reaction, hydrogen gas emits. But, with copper, while copper is oxidized, nitrogen of nitric acid is reduced to +4 or +2 oxidation states instead of reduction of hydrogen +1 ion to hydrogen gas (0 oxidation number).



Why copper does not react with dilute HCl acid like dilute HNO3 acid?

HCl acid is not a oxidizing acid because chlorine atom in the HCl is -1 oxidation state. Therefore that chlorine atom does not reduce to show oxidizing acid characteristics. But in HNO3, nitrogen is at +5 and it can be reduced to lower oxidation numbers.



What are the physical changes such as color changes in oxidation of copper with nitric acid?

Nitric acid is a colorless solution. (but if nitric acid was decomposed, there can be yellow color). When copper reacts with nitric acid solution become blue color. Also high concentration and and high temperature nitric acid was used, you can see a brown color gas emits during the reaction.



What are the other metals like copper which reacts with nitric acid and emit nitrogen dioxide?

Silver reacts with nitric acid and emit nitrogen dioxide and produce silver nitrate and water.

Ag(s) + 2HNO3(aq) → AgNO3(aq) + NO(g) + H2O(l)



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