Chemistry » Metals, Metalloids, and Nonmetals » Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Halogens

Properties of the Halogens

Properties of the Halogens

Fluorine is a pale yellow gas, chlorine is a greenish-yellow gas, bromine is a deep reddish-brown liquid, and iodine is a grayish-black crystalline solid. Liquid bromine has a high vapor pressure, and the reddish vapor is readily visible in the figure below. Iodine crystals have a noticeable vapor pressure. When gently heated, these crystals sublime and form a beautiful deep violet vapor.

Three sealed glass vials are shown. The left vial contains a pale yellow gas and a colorless liquid, the middle contains an orange gas and solid, and the right contains a purple gas and solid.

Chlorine is a pale yellow-green gas (left), gaseous bromine is deep orange (center), and gaseous iodine is purple (right). (Fluorine is so reactive that it is too dangerous to handle.) (credit: Sahar Atwa)

Bromine is only slightly soluble in water, but it is miscible in all proportions in less polar (or nonpolar) solvents such as chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, and carbon disulfide, forming solutions that vary from yellow to reddish-brown, depending on the concentration.

Iodine is soluble in chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, carbon disulfide, and many hydrocarbons, giving violet solutions of I2 molecules. Iodine dissolves only slightly in water, giving brown solutions. It is quite soluble in aqueous solutions of iodides, with which it forms brown solutions.

These brown solutions result because iodine molecules have empty valence d orbitals and can act as weak Lewis acids towards the iodide ion. The equation for the reversible reaction of iodine (Lewis acid) with the iodide ion (Lewis base) to form triiodide ion, \({\text{I}}_{3}{}^{\text{−}},\) is:


The easier it is to oxidize the halide ion, the more difficult it is for the halogen to act as an oxidizing agent. Fluorine generally oxidizes an element to its highest oxidation state, whereas the heavier halogens may not. For example, when excess fluorine reacts with sulfur, SF6 forms. Chlorine gives SCl2 and bromine, S2Br2. Iodine does not react with sulfur.

Fluorine is the most powerful oxidizing agent of the known elements. It spontaneously oxidizes most other elements; therefore, the reverse reaction, the oxidation of fluorides, is very difficult to accomplish. Fluorine reacts directly and forms binary fluorides with all of the elements except the lighter noble gases (He, Ne, and Ar). Fluorine is such a strong oxidizing agent that many substances ignite on contact with it. Drops of water inflame in fluorine and form O2, OF2, H2O2, O3, and HF.

Wood and asbestos ignite and burn in fluorine gas. Most hot metals burn vigorously in fluorine. However, it is possible to handle fluorine in copper, iron, or nickel containers because an adherent film of the fluoride salt passivates their surfaces. Fluorine is the only element that reacts directly with the noble gas xenon.

Although it is a strong oxidizing agent, chlorine is less active than fluorine. Mixing chlorine and hydrogen in the dark makes the reaction between them to be imperceptibly slow. Exposure of the mixture to light causes the two to react explosively. Chlorine is also less active towards metals than fluorine, and oxidation reactions usually require higher temperatures. Molten sodium ignites in chlorine. Chlorine attacks most nonmetals (C, N2, and O2 are notable exceptions), forming covalent molecular compounds. Chlorine generally reacts with compounds that contain only carbon and hydrogen (hydrocarbons) by adding to multiple bonds or by substitution.

In cold water, chlorine undergoes a disproportionation reaction:


Half the chlorine atoms oxidize to the 1+ oxidation state (hypochlorous acid), and the other half reduce to the 1− oxidation state (chloride ion). This disproportionation is incomplete, so chlorine water is an equilibrium mixture of chlorine molecules, hypochlorous acid molecules, hydronium ions, and chloride ions. When exposed to light, this solution undergoes a photochemical decomposition:

\(\text{2HOCl}(aq)+2{\text{H}}_{2}\text{O}(l)\;\stackrel{\phantom{\rule{0.5em}{0ex}}\text{sunlight}\phantom{\rule{0.5em}{0ex}}}{\to }\;2{\text{H}}_{3}{\text{O}}^{\text{+}}(aq)+2{\text{Cl}}^{\text{−}}(aq)+{\text{O}}_{2}(g)\)

The nonmetal chlorine is more electronegative than any other element except fluorine, oxygen, and nitrogen. In general, very electronegative elements are good oxidizing agents; therefore, we would expect elemental chlorine to oxidize all of the other elements except for these three (and the nonreactive noble gases). Its oxidizing property, in fact, is responsible for its principal use. For example, phosphorus(V) chloride, an important intermediate in the preparation of insecticides and chemical weapons, is manufactured by oxidizing the phosphorus with chlorine:


A great deal of chlorine is also used to oxidize, and thus to destroy, organic or biological materials in water purification and in bleaching.

The chemical properties of bromine are similar to those of chlorine, although bromine is the weaker oxidizing agent and its reactivity is less than that of chlorine.

Iodine is the least reactive of the halogens. It is the weakest oxidizing agent, and the iodide ion is the most easily oxidized halide ion. Iodine reacts with metals, but heating is often required. It does not oxidize other halide ions.

Compared with the other halogens, iodine reacts only slightly with water. Traces of iodine in water react with a mixture of starch and iodide ion, forming a deep blue color. This reaction is a very sensitive test for the presence of iodine in water.

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