Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives

Preparation of derivatives

When the OH in a carboxylic acid is replaced by another function such as X (Cl, Br), OR, NH2, etc., compounds called “carboxylic acid derivatives” are obtained. All of them have in common the acyl group (R-C=O).

These derivatives are, in turn, converted to acids by hydrolysis, and also give rise to interconversion reactions between them. The reactions of formation of carboxylic acid derivatives proceed by a characteristic nucleophilic addition-elimination mechanism.

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: Preparation of derivatives

Unlike the reactions of aldehydes and ketones, where in the tetrahedral intermediate the -O is protonated, here one of the substituents is protonated (making them good leaving groups) and removed to regenerate the >C=O double bond.

The reactivity order of carboxylic acids in nucleophilic addition-elimination processes is explained according to the basicity of the leaving group, the most basic being the X anion and the least basic the H2N one, as well as by the resonance stabilization of certain groups:

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: reactivity order of carboxylic acids

Formation of acyl halide from carboxylic acid

One of the most useful reactions of carboxylic acids is their conversion to acyl halides, specifically to acyl chlorides, since as we will see below these chlorides are very versatile and can, in turn, be converted to other derivatives easily. Frequently, one of the following reagents is used:

  • thionyl chloride, SOCl2

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: thionyl chloride SOCl2

  • phosphorus trichloride, PCl3

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: phosphorus trichloride, PCl3

  • phosphorus pentachloride, PCl5

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: phosphorus pentachloride, PCl5

Ester formation from carboxylic acid (Fischer esterification)

Esters can be formed directly from their corresponding carboxylic acids by heating them with alcohol, under acid catalysis (usually concentrated H2SO4 or dry HCl).

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: Ester formation from carboxylic acid (Fischer esterification)

Ester formation from carboxylic acid

Methyl esters can be easily obtained from diazomethane (CH2N2) as shown in the scheme, as a reaction by-product gaseous nitrogen (N2) is obtained.

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: Ester formation from carboxylic acid

Formation of amide from carboxylic acid

Amides are obtained by replacing the -OH by the -NH2 group, from carboxylic acids. This is not done directly, but requires an additional reaction to form the corresponding acyl chloride. It is a two-step process, first the formation of the acyl chloride and then the formation of the amide.

With ammonia, the reaction is as shown in the following scheme:

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: Formation of amide from carboxylic acid

This reaction can also be carried out with primary amines (R’-NH2), as shown in the following scheme:

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: Formation of amide from carboxylic acid

Formation of imide from dicarboxylic acid

Imides are the nitrogen analogs of acid anhydrides. One of the most characteristic imides is the phthalimide used in the synthesis of Gabriel.

Reactions of Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives: Formation of imide from dicarboxylic acid


One of the few reagents that reduces the carboxylic group to alcohol is LiAlH4. An alkoxide is generated which subsequently gives the alcohol by hydrolysis.

This reaction is especially useful in the transformation of long-chain carboxylic acids from fats. THF is usually used as solvent and the reaction is completed in slightly acidic aqueous medium.


Halogenation at α-position

Aliphatic carboxylic acids react under mild conditions with halogens at carbon-α in the presence of small amounts of phosphorus (Hell-Volhard-Zelinsky reaction).


Acyl chlorides

Formation of anhydride from acyl chloride

Acyl chlorides are the most reactive carboxylic acid derivatives. Acid anhydrides are obtained by the reaction of acyl chloride with carboxylic acid in the presence of a non-nucleophilic base (e.g. pyridine), which is used to neutralize excess HCl.


Ester formation from acyl chloride

A very useful way to obtain an ester is from the reaction of an acyl chloride with an alcohol. This is done under basic conditions, to neutralize the excess HCl.


Reduction to acyl chloride aldehydes (Rosenmund reduction)

Catalytic hydrogenation of acyl chlorides yields aldehydes. The catalyst must be poisoned with BaSO4and quinoline.


Reduction to aldehyde from acyl chloride

To achieve partial reduction to aldehyde we need to use hydride transfer reagents featuring bulky alkyl groups. Since LiAlH4 and NaBH4 would also react with the aldehyde obtained, modified reagents such as LiAl(t-BuO)3H (with a hydride that reacts only with the acyl chloride and not with the aldehyde formed) are used.


Reduction to primary alcohol from acyl chloride

With LiAlH4, the acyl chlorides are fully reduced to primary alcohol.


Formation of tertiary alcohol from acyl chloride

With carbon nucleophiles such as Grignard reagents (R’MgX), acyl chlorides are directly reduced to tertiary alcohol (the corresponding ketone is not obtained).


Formation of amide from acyl chloride

Ammonia as well as primary and secondary amines react with acyl chlorides to give amides. Basic conditions are used, as in ester formation, to neutralize the HCl formed.


Hydrolysis to carboxylic acid from acyl chloride

Acyl chlorides hydrolyze to their corresponding carboxylic acids by an addition-elimination mechanism. They are so reactive that just the addition of cold water hydrolyzes them. Aliphatic acyl chlorides react much more rapidly (sometimes violently) than their aromatic counterparts.


Ketone formation from acyl chloride

The transformation of an acyl chloride to ketone could be performed with organometallic reagents (RLi) and Grignard reagents (RMgX); however, because these are not very selective they react with the ketone formed giving alcohol.

Therefore, the best method of obtaining ketones from acyl chlorides is by organocuprate compounds. These are more selective than RLi or RMgX and do not react with the ketone obtained.


Ketone formation from acyl chloride (Friedel-Crafts acylation)


Acid anhydrides

Conversion to carboxylic acid

Acid anhydrides give rise to substitution reactions analogous to those studied for acyl chlorides, but less vigorously. In this case the leaving group is a carboxylate ion instead of the chloride.

Basic conditions are used to remove the carboxylic acid that is obtained as a by-product in some of these reactions. The anhydrides are hydrolyzed to give the corresponding carboxylic acids. In addition, the cyclic anhydrides give rise to ring breaking producing dicarboxylic acids.


Ester formation

By gently heating an anhydride in the presence of an alcohol, an ester is obtained. In addition, carboxylic acids are generated as by-products, which can be removed in a basic medium. In the case of cyclic anhydrides the following acid derivative is obtained:


Primary alcohol formation

The acid anhydrides react with LiAlH4, being totally reduced to primary alcohol, by the addition of two moles of hydride.


Amide formation

Anhydrides react with ammonia to give an amide -CONH2 and the ammonium salt of the corresponding acid. Similarly, they also react with primary and secondary amines to give N-substituted and N,N-disubstituted amides, respectively.



Formation of ketones (Friedel-Crafts acylation)

(See aromatic substitution reactions in benzene and derivatives.)


Acid or basic hydrolysis

Hydrolysis with water is so slow that, alternatively, reflux heating with acid catalysis (HCl or H2SO4diluents) is used. The reactions are equilibrium reactions.

A better alternative to this reaction is obtained with a dilute base as catalyst (NaOH). The advantage is that with basic catalysis the reaction is not equilibrium and the products are easier to separate.


Amide formation

Reaction with ammonia converts the esters to amides. It can be generalized for any 1º primary or 2º secondary amine, giving rise to N-substituted and N,N-disubstituted amides, respectively.



Esters react with alcohols to give other esters, where the alkyl group comes from the corresponding alcohol. This ester interconversion reaction is called transesterification.



It consists of the basic hydrolysis of an ester to give the corresponding alcohol and the carboxylic acid salt. It is popularly used in the manufacture of soap from fat or oil by carrying out the reaction with an alkaline base (NaOH or KOH).


Reduction to primary alcohol

Esters can be reduced into primary alcohols using hydride transfer reagents (LiAlH4), or by hydrogenation with copper oxide as a catalyst.


Tertiary alcohol processing

With Grignard reagents (R’MgX), carboxylic esters are transformed into tertiary alcohols.


Claisen condensation

(See Claisen condensation in enolate reactions.)


Anions formation

Amides practically do not occur in acyl transfer reactions, since they form resonant structures where the positive charge is placed on the nitrogen instead of the carbonyl carbon.


Acid formation

Amides can revert to carboxylic acids by acid hydrolysis. The C-N bond is broken, regenerating the corresponding carboxylic acid. The reaction is carried out by heating the amide using acid or basic catalysis.

With acid catalysis the carboxylic acid is obtained in the form of ammonium salt, whereas with basic catalysis carboxylate ions are formed.


amine formation (Hofmann degradation)

Amides can be transformed into amines by treatment with bromine in a basic medium. The resulting amine decarboxylates with one less carbon.


Amine formation

Unlike the previous case with LiAlH4, the amides give amines conserving the same carbon chain length.



Carboxylic acid formation

Nitriles, like the derivatives in this section, hydrolyze to carboxylic acids.



The use of hydride transfer reagents such as LiAlH4, reduces nitriles to their corresponding amines.


Transformation into aldehydes

This reaction is carried out with hydride transfer reagents such as DIBAH (diisobutyl aluminum hydride).


Transformation into ketones

The nitriles are converted to the corresponding ketones with Grignard reagents (R’MgX), via an anionic intermediate undergoing hydrolysis.


Back to the Synthesis and Reactivity of Organic Compounds.