explain why the boiling points of alcohols and phenols are much higher than those of alkanes, ethers, etc., of similar molecular mass. discuss the factors that are believed to determine the acidity of alcohols and phenols. list a given series of alcohols or phenols in order of increasing or decreasing acidity. explain the difference in acidity between two given alcohols or phenols. explain why phenols are more acidic than alcohols. explain, in terms of inductive and resonance effects, why a given substituted phenol is more or less acidic than phenol itself. write equations for the reactions of given alcohols and phenols with strong bases, such as sodium hydride and sodium amide.

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Key Terms

Make certain that you can define, and use in context, the key terms below.

acid ionization constant (Ka) alkoxide ion (RO−) phenoxide ion (ArO−)

Study Notes

You may wish to review the concept of hydrogen bonding, which should have been discussed in your first‑year general bromheads.tvistry course.

Boiling Points

The chart below shows the boiling points of the following simple primary alcohols with up to 4 carbon atoms:


These boiling points are compared with those of the equivalent alkanes (methane to butane) with the same number of carbon atoms.

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The hydrogen atoms are slightly positive because the bonding electrons are pulled toward the very electronegative oxygen atoms. In alkanes, the only intermolecular forces are van der Waals dispersion forces. Hydrogen bonds are much stronger than these, and therefore it takes more energy to separate alcohol molecules than it does to separate alkane molecules. This the main reason for higher boiling points in alcohols.

The effect of van der Waals forces

Boiling points of the alcohols: Hydrogen bonding is not the only intermolecular force alcohols experience. There are also van der Waals dispersion forces and dipole-dipole interactions. The hydrogen bonding and dipole-dipole interactions are much the same for all alcohols, but dispersion forces increase as the alcohols get bigger. These attractions get stronger as the molecules get longer and have more electrons. This increases the sizes of the temporary dipoles formed. This is why the boiling points increase as the number of carbon atoms in the chains increases. It takes more energy to overcome the dispersion forces, and thus the boiling points rise. Comparison between alkanes and alcohols: Even without any hydrogen bonding or dipole-dipole interactions, the boiling point of the alcohol would be higher than the corresponding alkane with the same number of carbon atoms.

Compare ethane and ethanol:

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In order to mix the two, the hydrogen bonds between water molecules and the hydrogen bonds between ethanol molecules must be broken. Energy is required for both of these processes. However, when the molecules are mixed, new hydrogen bonds are formed between water molecules and ethanol molecules.


The energy released when these new hydrogen bonds form approximately compensates for the energy needed to break the original interactions. In addition, there is an increase in the disorder of the system, an increase in entropy. This is another factor in deciding whether bromheads.tvical processes occur. Consider a hypothetical situation involving 5-carbon alcohol molecules.


The hydrocarbon chains are forced between water molecules, breaking hydrogen bonds between those water molecules. The -OH ends of the alcohol molecules can form new hydrogen bonds with water molecules, but the hydrocarbon "tail" does not form hydrogen bonds. This means that many of the original hydrogen bonds being broken are never replaced by new ones.

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In place of those original hydrogen bonds are merely van der Waals dispersion forces between the water and the hydrocarbon "tails." These attractions are much weaker, and unable to furnish enough energy to compensate for the broken hydrogen bonds. Even allowing for the increase in disorder, the process becomes less feasible. As the length of the alcohol increases, this situation becomes more pronounced, and thus the solubility decreases.

Acid/Base properties of alcohols

Several important bromheads.tvical reactions of alcohols involving the O-H bond or oxygen-hydrogen bond only and leave the carbon-oxygen bond intact. An important example is salt formation with acids and bases. Alcohols, like water, are both weak bases and weak acids. The acid ionization constant (Ka) of ethanol is about 10~18, slightly less than that of water. Ethanol can be converted to its conjugate base by the conjugate base of a weaker acid such as ammonia {Ka — 10~35), or hydrogen (Ka ~ 10-38). It is convenient to employ sodium metal or sodium hydride, which react vigorously but controllably with alcohols:


The order of acidity of various liquid alcohols generally is water > primary > secondary > tertiary ROH. By this we mean that the equilibrium position for the proton-transfer reaction (Equation 15-1) lies more on the side of ROH and OHe as R is changed from primary to secondary to tertiary; therefore, tert-butyl alcohol is considered less acidic than ethanol:

\< ROH + OH^- \rightleftharpoons RO^- + HOH\>

However, in the gas phase the order of acidity is reversed, and the equilibrium position for Equation 15-1 lies increasingly on the side of ROGas R is changed from primary to secondary to tertiary, terf-Butyl alcohol is therefore more acidic than ethanol in the gas phase. This seeming contradiction appears more reasonable when one considers what effect solvation (or the lack of it) has on equilibria expressed by Equation 15-1. In solution, the larger anions of alcohols, known as alkoxide ions, probably are less well solvated than the smaller ions, because fewer solvent molecules can be accommodated around the negatively charged oxygen in the larger ions:


Acidity of alcohols therefore decreases as the size of the conjugate base increases. However, “naked” gaseous ions are more stable the larger the associated R groups, probably because the larger R groups can stabilize the charge on the oxygen atom better than the smaller R groups. They do this by polarization of their bonding electrons, and the bigger the group, the more polarizable it is. (Also see Section 11-8A, which deals with the somewhat similar situation encountered with respect to the relative acidities of ethyne and water.)

bromheads.tvical Reactions of Alcohols involving the O-H bond of Compounds with Basic Properties

Alcohols are bases similar in strength to water and accept protons from strong acids. An example is the reaction of methanol with hydrogen bromide to give methyloxonium bromide, which is analogous to the formation of hydroxonium bromide with hydrogen bromide and water: