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Organic Chemistry Text Book (CHEM 3401 and 3402)

3.3 Structural Effects on Acidity and Basicity

Structural effects on acidity and basicity

Now that we know how to quantify the strength of an acid or base, our next job is to gain an understanding of the fundamental reasons behind why one compound is more acidic or more basic than another. This is a big step: we are, for the first time, taking our knowledge of organic structure and applying it to a question of organic reactivity. Many of the ideas that we’ll see for the first here will continue to apply throughout the book as we tackle many other organic reaction types.

A: Periodic trends

First, we will focus on individual atoms, and think about trends associated with the position of an element on the periodic table. We’ll use as our first models the simple organic compounds ethane, methylamine, and ethanol, but the concepts apply equally to more complex biomolecules with the same functionalities, for example the side chains of the amino acids alanine (alkane), lysine (amine), and serine (alcohol).

We can see a clear trend in acidity as we move from left to right along the second row of the periodic table from carbon to nitrogen to oxygen. The key to understanding this trend is to consider the hypothetical conjugate base in each case: the more stable (weaker) the conjugate base, the stronger the acid. Look at where the negative charge ends up in each conjugate base. In the conjugate base of ethane, the negative charge is borne by a carbon atom, while on the conjugate base of methylamine and ethanol the negative charge is located on a nitrogen and an oxygen, respectively. Remember from section 2.4A that electronegativity also increases as we move from left to right along a row of the periodic table, meaning that oxygen is the most electronegative of the three atoms, and carbon the least.

Thus, the methoxide anion is the most stable (lowest energy, least basic) of the three conjugate bases, and the ethyl carbanion anion is the least stable (highest energy, most basic). Conversely, ethanol is the strongest acid, and ethane the weakest acid.

When moving vertically within a given column of the periodic table, we again observe a clear periodic trend in acidity. This is best illustrated with the haloacids and halides: basicity, like electronegativity, increases as we move up the column.

Conversely, acidity in the haloacids increases as we move down the column.

In order to make sense of this trend, we will once again consider the stability of the conjugate bases. Because fluorine is the most electronegative halogen element, we might expect fluoride to also be the least basic halogen ion. But in fact, it is the least stable, and the most basic! It turns out that when moving vertically in the periodic table, the size of the atom trumps its electronegativity with regard to basicity. The atomic radius of iodine is approximately twice that of fluorine, so in an iodide ion, the negative charge is spread out over a significantly larger volume:

This illustrates a fundamental concept in organic chemistry:

We will see this idea expressed again and again throughout our study of organic reactivity, in many different contexts. For now, we are applying the concept only to the influence of atomic radius on base strength. Because fluoride is the least stable (most basic) of the halide conjugate bases, HF is the least acidic of the haloacids, only slightly stronger than a carboxylic acid. HI, with a pKa of about -9, is almost as strong as sulfuric acid.

B: Resonance effects

In the previous section we focused our attention on periodic trends - the differences in acidity and basicity between groups where the exchangeable proton was bound to different elements. Now, it is time to think about how the structure of different organic groups contributes to their relative acidity or basicity, even when we are talking about the same element acting as the proton donor/acceptor. The first model pair we will consider is ethanol and acetic acid, but the conclusions we reach will be equally valid for all alcohol and carboxylic acid groups.

Despite the fact that they are both oxygen acids, the pKa values of ethanol and acetic acid are strikingly different. What makes a carboxylic acid so much more acidic than an alcohol? As before, we begin by considering the stability of the conjugate bases, remembering that a more stable (weaker) conjugate base corresponds to a stronger acid.

In both species, the negative charge on the conjugate base is located on oxygen, so periodic trends cannot be invoked. For acetic acid, however, there is a key difference: two resonance contributors can be drawn for the conjugate base, and the negative charge can be delocalized (shared) over two oxygen atoms. In the ethoxide ion, by contrast, the negative charge is localized, or ‘locked’ on the single oxygen – it has nowhere else to go. This makes the ethoxide ion much less stable.

Recall the important general statement that we made a little earlier: 'Electrostatic charges, whether positive or negative, are more stable when they are ‘spread out’ than when they are confined to one location.' Now, we are seeing this concept in another context, where a charge is being ‘spread out’ (in other words, delocalized) by resonance, rather than simply by the size of the atom involved.

C: Inductive effects

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Compare the pKa values of acetic acid and its mono-, di-, and tri-chlorinated derivatives:

The presence of the chlorine atoms clearly increases the acidity of the carboxylic acid group, but the argument here does not have to do with resonance delocalization, because no additional resonance contributors can be drawn for the chlorinated molecules. Rather, the explanation for this phenomenon involves something called the inductive effect. A chlorine atom is more electronegative than a hydrogen, and thus is able to ‘induce’, or ‘pull’ electron density towards itself, away from the carboxylate group. In effect, the chlorine atoms are helping to further spread out the electron density of the conjugate base, which as we know has a stabilizing effect. In this context, the chlorine substituent can be referred to as an electron-withdrawing group. Notice that the pKa-lowering effect of each chlorine atom, while significant, is not as dramatic as the delocalizing resonance effect illustrated by the difference in pKa values between an alcohol and a carboxylic acid. In general, resonance effects are more powerful than inductive effects.