Pre-university Advanced A Level Organic Chemistry: Dehydration of alcohols to prepare alkenes

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PART 4.6B The Dehydration of alcohols to yield alkenes

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Thermal dehydration at high temperature or heating with conc. sulfuric acid.

(a) Ethanol can be dehydrated to ethene - an industrial thermal decomposition process

This is done by passing the alcohol vapour over heated aluminium oxide catalyst at 300oC.

The trend for an elimination is tertiary > secondary > primary

It is an endothermic thermal decomposition reaction.

This elimination reaction is actually the reverse of the addition reaction by which ethanol is made from ethene (from cracking oil) by addition of water.

(i) ethanol ====> ethene + water

CH3CH2OH ====> CH2=CH2 + H2

====> + H2O

(ii) propan-1-ol  or  propan-2-ol  ===>  propene  +  water

{CH3CH2CH2OH  or  CH3CH(OH)CH3}  ===>  CH3CH=CH2  +  H2O

Note that the two isomeric alcohols give the same alkene product.

(iii) higher alcohols may give one or two elimination products

e.g. the alcohol isomers of C4H9OH will yield alkenes of molecular formula C4H8.

butan-1-ol  ===> but-1-ene  +  water

CH3CH2CH2CH2OH  ===>  CH3CH2CH=CH2  +  H2O

butan-2-ol  ===> {but-1-ene or but-2-ene}  +  water

CH3CH2CH(OH)CH3 ===> {CH3CH2CH=CH2 or CH3CH=CHCH3} + H2O

The eliminated H atom can come from the carbon atom on either side of the OH carbon atom to give the two alkene isomers.

2-methylpropan-1-ol  ===>  2-methylpropene  +  water

(CH3)2CHCH2OH  ===>  (CH3)2C=CH2  +  H2O

2-methylpropan-2-ol  ===>  2-methylpropene  +  water

(CH3)3COH  ===>  (CH3)2C=CH2  +  H2O

This reaction is potentially an important source of organic chemicals e.g. plastics made by polymerising ethene, from a renewable resource since the ethanol can be made by fermentation of carbohydrates etc.

It is being used in countries that do not have oil reserves but have large areas of agricultural land producing sugar cane or sugar beet that are the raw materials for the fermentation process to manufacture ethanol.

The ethanol, so produced, becomes an important chemical feedstock for producing lots of other chemicals including polymers from ethene.

A simple laboratory demonstration with ethanol or a propanol

diagram of apparatus to dehydrate alcohol ethanol to ethene alkene advanced A level chemistry doc brown

You soak some mineral wool in the alcohol and stuff to the end of a pyrex boiling tube.

Place some aluminium oxide half-way along the pyrex tube.

Heat the aluminium oxide quite strongly and the hot air will vaporise some of the alcohol which passes over the hot catalyst.

The alkene gas can be collected, as shown above, quite safely over water, but note the extra safety bottle to prevent cold water sucking back into the very hot pyrex boiling tube!

Mix the gaseous product with bromine water and you should see decolourisation, evidence of alkene formation.


(b) Dehydration using conc. sulfuric/phosphoric(V) acid in the laboratory.

(ii) If you heat ethanol with conc. sulfuric acid (at 180oC) or concentrated phosphoric(V) acid, ethene gas is evolved.

CH3CH2OH  == H2SO4/H3PO4 ==>  H2C=CH2  +  H2O

You can get a con-current condensation reaction that produces an ether e.g.

ethanol  ===>  ethoxyethane  +  water

2CH3CH2OH  ===>  CH3CH2OCH2CH3  +  H2O

(ii) Similarly you can heat cyclohexanol to yield cyclohexene

diols triols and cyclo-alcohols structure and naming (c) doc b  == H2SO4/H3PO4 ==>    +  H2O

diols triols and cyclo-alcohols structure and naming (c) doc b  == H2SO4/H3PO4 ==>  alkenes structure and naming (c) doc b  +  H2O

You can heat a mixture of cyclohexanol and conc. sulfuric acid in a flask and distil of the cyclohexene formed.

Cyclohexanol has a bpt. of 161oC, water 100oC and cyclohexene 83oC.

In this preparation, using a fractionating column reduces the impurities in the cyclohexene distillate.

You can do the preparation without the fractionating column, the product is less pure, but the product should clearly decolourise bromine water, a simple test that the product is an alkene.

If you want pure cyclohexene, you need to remove acid impurities with sodium hydrogen carbonate solution in a separating funnel. (This may remove traces of cyclohexanol too?)

Separate the organic layer and dry it.

Further fractional distillation to make it very pure.


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