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Organic Chemistry Text Book (CHEM 3401 and 3402)

21.2 Alpha Halogenation of Enols and Enolates

Many aldehydes and ketones undergo substitution reactions at an alpha carbon, as shown in the following diagram (alpha-carbon atoms are colored blue). These reactions are acid or base catalyzed, but in the case of halogenation the reaction generates an acid as one of the products, and is therefore autocatalytic. If the alpha-carbon is a chiral center, as in the second example, the products of halogenation and isotopic exchange are racemic. Indeed, treatment of this ketone reactant with acid or base alone serves to racemize it. Not all carbonyl compounds exhibit these characteristics, the third ketone being an example.


Two important conclusions may be drawn from these examples. First, these substitutions are limited to carbon atoms alpha to the carbonyl group. Cyclohexanone (the first ketone) has two alpha-carbons and four potential substitutions (the alpha-hydrogens). Depending on the reaction conditions, one or all four of these hydrogens may be substituted, but none of the remaining six hydrogens on the ring react. The second ketone confirms this fact, only the alpha-carbon undergoing substitution, despite the presence of many other sites. Second, the substitutions are limited to hydrogen atoms. This is demonstrated convincingly by the third ketone, which is structurally similar to the second but has no alpha-hydrogen.