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Activity Series of Unknown Metals (1 Favorite)

LAB in Observations, Chemical Change, Balancing Equations, Activity Series, Chemical Change, Predicting Products. Last updated March 10, 2021.


In this lab, students will create an activity series of metals from a series of reactions involving unknown metals. They will then compare their activity series and a list of metals used in this lab (supplied by the teacher after data collection) to a published activity series to identify the unknown metals.

Grade Level

High School

NGSS Alignment

This lab will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • MS-PS1-2: Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.
  • HS-PS1-2: Construct and revise an explanation for the outcome of a simple chemical reaction based on the outermost electron states of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of the patterns of chemical properties.
  • Scientific and Engineering Practices:
    • Developing and Using Models
    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
    • Engaging in Argument from Evidence


By the end of this lab, students should be able to:

  • Create an activity series of unknown metals based on data obtained in reactions.
  • Identify the unknown metals based on reaction data and a published activity series.

Chemistry Topics

This lab supports students’ understanding of:

  • Chemical reactions
  • Activity Series of Metals
  • Evidence of chemical change
  • Single replacement reactions


Teacher Preparation: 60 minutes
Lesson: 60 minutes

Materials (per lab group)

  • Well plate or spot plate
  • Small pieces of copper (A), magnesium (B), zinc (C), and lead (F) – optional for extension
  • Dropper bottles with the following solutions (all 1.0 M): CuSO4 (“A”SO4), MgSO4 (“B”SO4), ZnCl2 (“C”Cl2), NaCl (“D”Cl), and AgNO3 (“E”NO3)
    20 ml of each solution per bottle
  • Toothpick


  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • If any solution gets on students’ skin, they should immediately and thoroughly flush their skin with water.
  • Students should wash their hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • When students complete the lab, instruct them how to clean up their materials and dispose of any chemicals.

Teacher Notes

  • This lab is designed to be performed after instruction on single replacement reactions.
  • Students can be in groups of 2 or 3.
  • The total amount of each solution should be about 20 mL per group.
  • Each group will have 5 small pieces of each metal.
  • Explain to the students that metal “A” is the same metal that is in the solution “A”SO4, metal “B” is the same metal that is in the solution “B”SO4, metal “C” is the same metal that is in the solution “C”Cl2. I found that if given the metals identities, the students have a tendency to look up the reactivity of the metals to make their activity series of metals instead of using the data.
    • In the analysis questions, students are told to get the list of actual metals/metal ions used (Zn, Mg, Cu, Pb, Na, and Ag) from their teacher once they have constructed their activity series based on their data. They can identify the unknown metals by comparing their activity series and the identities of the unknowns to a published activity series, such as might be found in students’ textbooks or free online textbooks.
  • Lead, unknown “F,” could be tested in the solutions as an extension activity. If you do not wish to use this, you may want to remove references to “F” in the student document before distributing it to students.
  • Some of the reactions may take some time to make an appreciable difference in the appearance of the substances involved. Encourage students to revisit each reaction after a few minutes pass before they note any of the combinations as “no reaction.”
  • You may want to warn students about the possibility that some of the solutions (namely AgNO3, or “E”NO3) can cause dark stains on skin and clothes. The stains may not show up right away, and may appear even if they wash the affected areas soon after contact. The stains are not harmful or permanent, but could take a few days to fade from skin and may be difficult to get out of fabric or other surfaces.
  • Higher level students are not given step-by-step instructions, rather they develop the procedure to achieve the lab goals and create their own data table. Though the two versions are combined in this teacher document, there are an advanced student document and a basic student document available as separate downloads.
  • Related classroom resources from AACT Library that may be used to further teacher this topic:

For the Student



The activity series of metals is the ranking of metals according to their reactivity, or their ability to react with nonmetals. In such a reaction, the metal loses electron(s) to the nonmetal to form cations and the product of the reaction is an ionic compound. In an activity series of metals, the more reactive metals are placed at the top of the list. The alkali metals and alkaline earth metals are the most reactive due to the increased stability of the metal in compounds formed compared to the elemental form. Metals with greater reactivity will replace other metals in ionic compounds with lower reactivity.

In this lab, you will observe and compare the reaction of 3 (4 for extension) metals with 5 different ionic solutions and establish an order of reactivity from most active to least active. This list is called an activity series.

Prelab Questions

  1. What are some things that are evidence of a chemical reaction?
  2. Define single replacement reaction.
  3. Interpret the following reactions concerning metals A, B, and C:
    1. A + BNO3   →     No reaction
      Which metal (A or B) is more reactive and how do you know?
    2. A + CSO4   →    Reaction
      Which metal (A or C) is more reactive and how do you know?
    3. B + CSO4   →    Reaction
      Which metal (B or C) is more reactive and how do you know?
    4. Place the 3 metals in order of most reactive to least reactive.
    5. The identities of the metals used in the above reactions are nickel (Ni), iron (Fe), and tin (Sn). Consult a published activity series (like one in your textbook) and use your list in part d. to determine the identities of the unknown metals. Explain your reasoning.


Determine the activity series of five (or six for optional extension) unknown metals based on data obtained in reactions.


  • Well plate or spot plate
  • Small pieces of metals “A”, “B”, “C”, and “F” (optional for extension)
  • Dropper bottles with the following solutions: “A”SO4, “B”SO4, “C”Cl2, “D”Cl, and “E”NO3
  • Toothpick


  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • If any solution gets on your skin, immediately rinse the area with water.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • Follow the teacher’s instructions for cleanup of materials and disposal of chemicals.


Higher-level classes: Develop a procedure to determine the activity series of metals for the five metals A, B, C, D, E, and F (optional extension). Get approval of your procedure from the teacher before performing the lab.

Lower-level classes:

  1. Refer to the data table as a guide for setting up the well plate.
  2. Using the well plate, combine each metal (A, B, C) with each solution. Place the each of the metals in the well plate. Put enough drops of the solution to completely cover the piece of metal. If the metal floats, use the toothpick to submerge the metal and release any trapped air bubbles.
  3. Record any changes in appearance due to chemical reaction. Remember to look for the formation of bubbles. Some reactions may take some time to observe.
  4. Extension: Place metal F with all solutions and record results.
  5. Dispose of the solutions and metals in the waste bucket. Use the toothpick to remove any metal pieces into the waste container. Do not pour anything down the sink.
  6. Clean the well plate with plenty of water.


Higher-level classes: Make a data table to record your observations. Make sure the table has labels and could be interpreted by anyone not performing the lab.

Lower level classes: In the data table below, record your observations of any changes that could indicate a chemical reaction has taken place. If no reaction occurs, write “NR”. There should be no reaction if a metal is reacted with an ionic solution that contains that same metal.


“A”SO4 “B”SO4 “C”Cl2 “D”Cl “E”NO3


  1. List all evidence observed that a chemical reaction took place.
  2. Make your activity series of metals: Using your lab results, rank the metals A, B, C, D, and E (and F, for extension) in order from most reactive to least reactive.
  3. Ask your teacher for the list of metals/metal ions used in this lab. Once you have that list, compare a published activity series (like one in your textbook) to the list you developed (question 2) to identify the unknown metals.
  4. Railroad companies use thermite welding to repair railroad tracks. This involves the reaction between iron (III) oxide and aluminum.
    1. Without looking it up, which metal do you think is higher on the activity series? Explain your reasoning.
    2. Write the balanced chemical reaction.


Write a paragraph to explain how you determined the activity series of metals from the data. Include any errors that might have occurred.