Advanced A/AS Level Organic Chemistry: Selective reduction of carboxylic acids

Part 6. The Chemistry of  Carboxylic Acids and their Derivatives

Doc Brown's Chemistry Advanced Level Pre-University Chemistry Revision Study Notes for UK KS5 A/AS GCE IB advanced level organic chemistry students US K12 grade 11 grade 12 organic chemistry

Part 6.5 Selective reduction of carboxylic acids and use of the products in organic synthesis, a unique oxidation!

INDEX of all carboxylic acids and derivatives notes

All Advanced A Level Organic Chemistry Notes

[SEARCH BOX] ignore ads at top

6.5.1 Reduction of a carboxylic acid to a primary aliphatic alcohol

Sodium tetrahydridoborate(III) NaBH4, (sodium borohydride), is not a powerful enough reducing agent to reduce carboxylic acids.

Lithium tetrahydridoaluminate(III), LiAlH4, (lithium aluminium tetrahydride), is a much more powerful reducing agent than NaBH4, and in ether solvent, readily reduces carboxylic acids to primary alcohols.

The LiAlH4 effectively releases a hydride ion, :H-, a powerful nucleophile - electron pair donor, which can attacks the δ+ carbon of polarised carbonyl bond δ+C=Oδ-. (electronegativity of O > C).

The reaction must be carried with a dry solvent such as ethoxyethane ('ether') because LiAlH4 reacts rapidly with water (and ethanol too).

The reaction is complex and goes through various stages and can be summarised as:

RCOOH  +  4[H]  ===>  RCH2OH  +  H2O  (R = H, alkyl or aryl)

The initial product must then be hydrolysed with water to release the primary alcohol.

e.g. propanoic acid to propan–1–ol: CH3CH2COOH + 4[H] ==> CH3CH2CH2OH + H2O

or benzoic acid to phenylmethanol: C6H5COOH + 4[H] ==> C6H5CH2OH + H2O

(c) doc b  +  4[H]  ===>  (c) doc b  +  H2O


So, LiAlH4 (not NaBH4) readily reduces the carbonyl group (>C=O) in carboxylic acids and derivatives to the primary alcohol functional group.


As far as I know, metal/acid reducing agents like Zn(s)/HCl(aq) is not powerful enough to reduce carboxylic acids.

H2(g)/Ni(s) will NOT reduce carboxylic acids, but there are other specialised catalysts that can effect this reduction using hydrogen gas in the chemical industry.

RCOOH  +  2H2  ===>  RCH2OH  +  H2O   (R = H, alkyl or aryl)


A simple example to illustrate what is, and is not, reduced in terms of the functional groups.

e.g. propenoic acid H2C=CH-COOH ('acrylic acid'),

which has two functional groups - alkene and carboxylic acid

(i) H2C=CH-COOH  +  [H]  == NaBH4 ==>  No reaction

(ii) H2C=CH-COOH  +  4[H]  == LiAlH4 ==>  H2C=CH-CH2OH  +  H2O

The alkene is NOT reduced, but the carbonyl group is, giving prop-2-en-1-ol. via the negative hydride ion nucleophile attacking the polarised carbonyl bond.

Nucleophilic attack:  -H: ==> δ+C=Oδ-

This product is an unsaturated primary alcohol, still with two functional groups.

The >C=C< alkene group is NOT reduced by LiAlH4 because the attacking nucleophile is essentially a negative hydride ion (:H-) which would be repelled by the high electron density of the pi electron cloud of the non-polar C=C bond.

(iii) H2C=CH-COOH  +  H2  == Ni ==>  H3C-CH2-COOH

Only the alkene group is reduced, giving propanoic acid with only one functional group.


This means you can selectively reduce either functional groups or you need two reductions to form propan-1-ol.


The molecule now has the chemistry of primary alcohols

6.5.2 A unique oxidation

Apart from a carboxylic acid with an aldehyde group as or in a side chain, methanoic acid is the only carboxylic acid that is so easily oxidised it gives the following results with the following reagents:

(i) It gives a silver mirror with ammoniacal silver nitrate (Tollen's reagent).

(ii) It gives a red-brown copper(I) oxide (Cu2O) with blue Fehling's solution.

(iii) It does not give a yellow-orange precipitate with 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazine - carboxylic acids do not usually undergo nucleophilic addition - elimination reactions.


In tests (i) and (ii) methanoic acid is oxidised to carbon dioxide and water.

HCOOH  +  [O]  ===>  CO2  +  H2O

When you write the formula of methanoic acid, HCOOH, the 'usual' abbreviated structural formula, the explanation isn't as obvious until you write it another way ...

i.e.  HOCHO is now a formula of a hydroxy-aldehyde, hence its ease of oxidation, giving positive results for two the simple tests for aldehydes !!!

You can't 'rearrange' any of the other carboxylic acids to be both aldehyde and carboxylic acid.

Doc Brown's Advanced Level Chemistry Revision Notes

[SEARCH BOX] ignore ads at top

INDEX of all carboxylic acids and derivatives notes

 All Advanced Organic Chemistry Notes


KS3 BIOLOGY QUIZZES ~US grades 6-8 KS3 CHEMISTRY QUIZZES ~US grades 6-8 KS3 PHYSICS QUIZZES ~US grades 6-8 HOMEPAGE of Doc Brown's Science Website EMAIL Doc Brown's Science Website
GCSE 9-1 BIOLOGY NOTES GCSE 9-1 CHEMISTRY NOTES and QUIZZES GCSE 9-1 PHYSICS NOTES GCSE 9-1 SCIENCES syllabus-specification help links for biology chemistry physics courses IGCSE & O Level SCIENCES syllabus-specification help links for biology chemistry physics courses
Advanced A/AS Level ORGANIC Chemistry Revision Notes US K12 ~grades 11-12 Advanced A/AS Level INORGANIC Chemistry Revision Notes US K12 ~grades 11-12 Advanced A/AS Level PHYSICAL-THEORETICAL Chemistry Revision Notes US K12 ~grades 11-12 Advanced A/AS Level CHEMISTRY syllabus-specificatio HELP LINKS of my site Doc Brown's Travel Pictures
Website content © Dr Phil Brown 2000+. All copyrights reserved on revision notes, images, quizzes, worksheets etc. Copying of website material is NOT permitted. Exam revision summaries & references to science course specifications are unofficial.

 Doc Brown's Chemistry