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SN1 reaction

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Title: SN1 reaction  
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Subject: SN2 reaction, Arrow pushing, Nucleophilic substitution, Substitution reaction, Elimination reaction
Collection: Reaction Mechanisms, Substitution Reactions
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SN1 reaction

The SN1 reaction is a cis effect. A reaction mechanism was first proposed by Christopher Ingold et al. in 1940.[3] This reaction does not depend much on the strength of the nucleophile unlike the SN2 mechanism.


  • Mechanism 1
  • Scope 2
  • Stereochemistry 3
  • Side reactions 4
  • Solvent effects 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


An example of a reaction taking place with an SN1 reaction mechanism is the hydrolysis of tert-butyl bromide with water forming tert-butanol:

reaction tert-butylbromide water overall

This SN1 reaction takes place in three steps:

SN1 mechanism: dissociation to carbocation
  • Nucleophilic attack: the carbocation reacts with the nucleophile. If the nucleophile is a neutral molecule (i.e. a solvent) a third step is required to complete the reaction. When the solvent is water, the intermediate is an oxonium ion. This reaction step is fast.
Recombination of carbocation with nucleophile

Proton transfer forming the alcohol


The SN1 mechanism tends to dominate when the central carbon atom is surrounded by bulky groups because such groups sterically hinder the SN2 reaction. Additionally, bulky substituents on the central carbon increase the rate of carbocation formation because of the relief of steric strain that occurs. The resultant carbocation is also stabilized by both inductive stabilization and hyperconjugation from attached alkyl groups. The Hammond-Leffler postulate suggests that this too will increase the rate of carbocation formation. The SN1 mechanism therefore dominates in reactions at tertiary alkyl centers and is further observed at secondary alkyl centers in the presence of weak nucleophiles.

An example of a reaction proceeding in a SN1 fashion is the synthesis of 2,5-dichloro-2,5-dimethylhexane from the corresponding diol with concentrated hydrochloric acid:[5]

Synthesis of 2,5-Dichloro-2,5-dimethylhexane by an SN1 reaction

As the alpha and beta substitutions increase with respect to leaving groups the reaction is diverted from SN2 to SN1.


The carbocation intermediate formed in the reaction's rate limiting step is an sp2 hybridized carbon with trigonal planar molecular geometry. This allows two different avenues for the nucleophilic attack, one on either side of the planar molecule. If neither avenue is preferentially favored, these two avenues occur equally, yielding a racemic mix of enantiomers if the reaction takes place at a stereocenter.[6] This is illustrated below in the SN1 reaction of S-3-chloro-3-methylhexane with an iodide ion, which yields a racemic mixture of 3-iodo-3-methylhexane:

A typical SN1 reaction, showing how racemisation occurs

However, an excess of one stereoisomer can be observed, as the leaving group can remain in proximity to the carbocation intermediate for a short time and block nucleophilic attack. This stands in contrast to the SN2 mechanism, which is a stereospecific mechanism where stereochemistry is always inverted as the nucleophile comes in from the rear side of the leaving group.

Side reactions

Two common side reactions are elimination reactions and carbocation rearrangement. If the reaction is performed under warm or hot conditions (which favor an increase in entropy), E1 elimination is likely to predominate, leading to formation of an alkene. At lower temperatures, SN1 and E1 reactions are competitive reactions and it becomes difficult to favor one over the other. Even if the reaction is performed cold, some alkene may be formed. If an attempt is made to perform an SN1 reaction using a strongly basic nucleophile such as hydroxide or methoxide ion, the alkene will again be formed, this time via an E2 elimination. This will be especially true if the reaction is heated. Finally, if the carbocation intermediate can rearrange to a more stable carbocation, it will give a product derived from the more stable carbocation rather than the simple substitution product.

Solvent effects

Since the SN1 reaction involves formation of an unstable carbocation intermediate in the rate-determining step, anything that can facilitate this will speed up the reaction. The normal solvents of choice are both polar (to stabilize ionic intermediates in general) and protic (to solvate the leaving group in particular). Typical polar protic solvents include water and alcohols, which will also act as nucleophiles and the process is known as solvolysis.

The Y scale correlates solvolysis reaction rates of any solvent (k) with that of a standard solvent (80% v/v ethanol/water) (k0) through

\log { \left ( \frac{k}{k_0} \right ) } = mY \,

with m a reactant constant (m = 1 for tert-butyl chloride) and Y a solvent parameter.[7] For example 100% ethanol gives Y = −2.3, 50% ethanol in water Y = +1.65 and 15% concentration Y = +3.2.[8]

See also


  1. ^ L. G. Wade, Jr., Organic Chemistry, 6th ed., Pearson/Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, USA, 2005
  2. ^ March, J. (1992). Advanced Organic Chemistry (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.  
  3. ^ Leslie C. Bateman, Mervyn G. Church, Edward D. Hughes, Christopher K. Ingold and Nazeer Ahmed Taher (1940). "188. Mechanism of substitution at a saturated carbon atom. Part XXIII. A kinetic demonstration of the unimolecular solvolysis of alkyl halides. (Section E) a general discussion". Journal of the Chemical Society (Resumed): 979.  
  4. ^ Peters, K. S. (2007). "Nature of Dynamic Processes Associated with the SN1 Reaction Mechanism".  
  5. ^ Wagner, Carl E.; Marshall, Pamela A. (2010). "Synthesis of 2,5-Dichloro-2,5-dimethylhexane by an SN1 Reaction".  
  6. ^ Sorrell, Thomas N. "Organic Chemistry, 2nd Edition" University Science Books, 2006
  7. ^ Ernest Grunwald and S. Winstein (1948). "The Correlation of Solvolysis Rates".  
  8. ^ Arnold H. Fainberg and S. Winstein (1956). "Correlation of Solvolysis Rates. III.1 t-Butyl Chloride in a Wide Range of Solvent Mixtures".  

Further reading

  • Electrophilic Bimolecular Substitution as an Alternative to Nucleophilic Monomolecular Substitution in Inorganic and Organic Chemistry / N.S.Imyanitov. J. Gen. Chem. USSR (Engl. Transl.) 1990; 60 (3); 417-419.
  • Unimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution does not Exist! / N.S.Imyanitov. SciTecLibrary

External links

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