Oxidation Lesson for Kids: Process & Prevention

Instructor: Michelle Jones

Michelle has taught at the elementary level and has earned a master's degree.

What do an apple that has turned brown and a rusty bike have in common? They have both been exposed to oxygen. This lesson describes the process of oxidation and some ways to prevent it.

What Is Oxidation?

Jared left a metal truck outside for a week when he went on vacation with his family. When he got back, he noticed that some of the metal changed into a reddish, flaky substance. He didn't know why this happened, so he decided to do some research.

Jared found out that oxidation had caused his truck to rust, which happens when iron (a type of metal) meets oxygen in the air or water. His truck was made of steel, which is made from iron. When oxygen is added to iron, the iron loses electrons, causing the metal to break down and rust.

This truck has rust in some spots just like the one Jared has.
picture of rusty toy truck

How Does Oxidation Happen?

There is oxygen all around us in the air we breathe. Iron is permeable, which means liquid or air can pass through it. So when it is exposed to water or air, a chemical reaction occurs and it changes to iron oxide (iron + oxygen) and begins to break down.

Once the oxidation process (rusting) has started, it will continue until the metal is destroyed, or until something is put in place to stop it from happening.

Jared wanted to take his research a step further and look at oxidation in different environments. He found that the salt in ocean water makes iron oxidize faster. And air with more moisture in it (humidity) will speed up the oxidation process. For example, a car in Florida, where it is very humid, will rust faster than one in Nevada, where the air is dry.

Oxidation has happened to this metal for so long that parts of it have been totally worn away.
picture of rusted metal

How Can Oxidation Be Prevented?

Through his research, Jared found that iron or steel is used in the construction of many large structures, like bridges, houses, and buildings. He wondered why it would be used so often if it rusts so easily? The answer is because it is easy to work with and inexpensive, and there is plenty of it.

So if you want to use iron or steel to build, how can you stop these metals from oxidizing in the first place? Think about how you protect your skin from the sun in the summer. Putting on sunscreen places a barrier between your skin and the sun's rays, which can be harmful to your skin just like oxygen is harmful to iron. Let's look at some ways to block oxygen from reaching that metal.

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