Have you ever wondered why some metals change color with time? You have surely seen a rusty nail at least once in your life. Why has it turned all brown and flaky? Well — spoiler alert — it all comes down to chemistry. No matter if you need to prepare for a school project, or you’re just a naturally curious person, knowing why certain chemical processes occur is extremely beneficial.
In this article, I explain what rusting is, why it happens, and what the chemical formula for rust is. If you want to learn all that and more, read on.
What Is Rust?
Rust (Fe2O3•nH2O) is an iron oxide — usually reddish-brown — and is the common term for corrosion of iron and its alloys (steel, cast iron, etc.). Corrosion is described as the destruction of materials by chemical reactions with different substances in the environment.
There are three types of corrosion:
- Biochemical corrosion.
Experiment (Rusting of Iron)
Now that we know what rust is, let’s answer the question — which substances cause iron to rust?
The best way to understand the process is by seeing it with your own eyes. Fortunately for our experiment (and unfortunately in any other terms), iron rusts fairly quickly, so you can observe that process in a matter of days. Here’s what you’ll need for the project:
- Three empty jars
- Three iron nails
- Distilled water
- Boiled distilled water
- Vegetable Oil
- Anhydrous calcium chloride
- A jar lid
Set Up Jar #1
Put an iron nail in the first jar and pour in some distilled water. Leave the jar without a lid, so the air could come in.
Set Up Jar #2
Place the second nail in the second jar, but this time pour boiled distilled water in. Boiling the water ensures there is no air dissolved in it. After that, pour in some vegetable oil. It will act as a barrier for any outside air that may dissolve in the water; you’ll see why that’s important in a bit. Leave the jar open just like you did with the first one.
Set Up Jar #3
Lastly, put some anhydrous calcium powder in the third jar. Its purpose is to remove any moisture from the air in the jar. Then, place the last iron nail on top of the powder and put the lid on the jar; it will prevent any moist air from entering.
In a nutshell, you should have one jar with water and air (jar #1), one with water but no air (jar #2), and one with air but no water (jar #3).
Now, leave the three jars for a few days. When you come back, you’ll see that the iron nail in the first jar has started to rust. The nails in the other two, however, are perfectly fine. That proves that in order for rusting to occur, iron has to react with both water and air. If you remove one of the two reactants, no rust will form on the metal’s surface.
How to Stop Metals From Rusting
People use metals in so many different fields — machine building, agriculture, the automotive and food and beverage industry, etc. Therefore, corrosion is a huge problem and may lead to machine failures and other stumbling blocks that inevitably cause financial losses.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent metals from rusting and corroding. That is done by creating a barrier between the materials we want to protect and the environment. Such means of protection include:
- Insulating the material with non-metallic coatings — e.g., varnishes, paint, grease, etc.
- Coating the material with a metal (electroplating)
- Coatingthe iron objects with a layer of zinc (a process called galvanizing)
Rusting is an immensely common process that, unfortunately, affects us negatively. It is quite straightforward — iron or its alloys react with water and air and consequently get coated with rust. That weakens the metal, and if given enough time, any iron object can turn entirely to rust.
Now you know what rust is, what it takes for it to form, and how to prevent it from affecting metals. Of course, that explanation is not a complete chemical study of rusting, and that’s not the point. The aim is to give you enough information so you understand the process without going into unnecessary details.
You can try the experiment at home or make a school project about it; it’s easy and effective. I hope the information I provided was helpful. You can share it with your friends or anyone who may be interested in it.