A greatly under-appreciated fundamental principle of physical organic chemistry

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If a species does not have a finite lifetime in the reaction medium, it cannot be a mechanistic intermediate. This principle was first enunciated by Jencks, as the concept of an enforced mechanism. For instance, neither primary nor secondary carbocations have long enough lifetimes to exist in an aqueous medium, so SN1 reactions involving these substrates are not possible, and an SN2 mechanism is enforced. Only tertiary carbocations and those stabilized by resonance (benzyl cations, acylium ions) are stable enough to be reaction intermediates. More importantly, it is now known that neither H3O+ nor HO– exist as such in dilute aqueous solution. Several recent high-level calculations on large proton clusters are unable to localize the positive charge; it is found to be simply “on the cluster” as a whole. The lifetime of any ionized water species is exceedingly short, a few molecular vibrations at most; the best experimental study, using modern IR instrumentation, has the most probable hydrated proton structure as H13O6+, but only an estimated quarter of the protons are present even in this form at any given instant. Thanks to the Grotthuss mechanism of chain transfer along hydrogen bonds, in reality a proton or a hydroxide ion is simply instantly available anywhere it is needed for reaction. Important mechanistic consequences result. Any charged oxygen species (e.g., a tetrahedral intermediate) is also not going to exist long enough to be a reaction intermediate, unless the charge is stabilized in some way, usually by resonance. General acid catalysis is the rule in reactions in concentrated aqueous acids. The Grotthuss mechanism also means that reactions involving neutral water are favored; the solvent is already highly structured, so the entropy involved in bringing several solvent molecules to the reaction center is unimportant. Examples are given.




Cox, R. A. (2011, December). A greatly under-appreciated fundamental principle of physical organic chemistry. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms12128316

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