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Acidity of Carboxylic Acids

The pKa 's of some typical carboxylic acids are listed in the following table. When we compare these values with those of comparable alcohols, such as ethanol (pKa = 16) and 2-methyl-2-propanol (pKa = 19), it is clear that carboxylic acids are stronger acids by over ten powers of ten! Furthermore, electronegative substituents near the carboxyl group act to increase the acidity.







HCO2H 3.75   CH3CH2CH2CO2H 4.82
CH3CO2H 4.74   ClCH2CH2CH2CO2H 4.53
FCH2CO2H 2.65   CH3CHClCH2CO2H 4.05
ClCH2CO2H 2.85   CH3CH2CHClCO2H 2.89
BrCH2CO2H 2.90   C6H5CO2H 4.20
ICH2CO2H 3.10   p-O2NC6H4CO2H 3.45
Cl3CCO2H 0.77   p-CH3OC6H4CO2H 4.45

Why should the presence of a carbonyl group adjacent to a hydroxyl group have such a profound effect on the acidity of the hydroxyl proton? To answer this question we must return to the nature of acid-base equilibria and the definition of pKa , illustrated by the general equations given below. These relationships were described in an previous section of this text.




We know that an equilibrium favors the thermodynamically more stable side, and that the magnitude of the equilibrium constant reflects the energy difference between the components of each side. In an acid base equilibrium the equilibrium always favors the weaker acid and base (these are the more stable components). Water is the standard base used for pKa measurements; consequently, anything that stabilizes the conjugate base (A:(–)) of an acid will necessarily make that acid (H–A) stronger and shift the equilibrium to the right. Both the carboxyl group and the carboxylate anion are stabilized by resonance, but the stabilization of the anion is much greater than that of the neutral function, as shown in the following diagram. In the carboxylate anion the two contributing structures have equal weight in the hybrid, and the C–O bonds are of equal length (between a double and a single bond). This stabilization leads to a markedly increased acidity, as illustrated by the energy diagram displayed by clicking the "Toggle Display" button.


Vinylagous Acids

Compounds in which an enolic hydroxyl group is conjugated with a carbonyl group also show enhanced acidity. To see examples of such compounds Click Here

The resonance effect described here is undoubtedly the major contributor to the exceptional acidity of carboxylic acids. However, inductive effects also play a role. For example, alcohols have pKa's of 16 or greater but their acidity is increased by electron withdrawing substituents on the alkyl group. The following diagram illustrates this factor for several simple inorganic and organic compounds (row #1), and shows how inductive electron withdrawal may also increase the acidity of carboxylic acids (rows #2 & 3). The acidic hydrogen is colored red in all examples.

Water is less acidic than hydrogen peroxide because hydrogen is less electronegative than oxygen, and the covalent bond joining these atoms is polarized in the manner shown. Alcohols are slightly less acidic than water, due to the poor electronegativity of carbon, but chloral hydrate, Cl3CCH(OH)2, and 2,2,2,-trifluoroethanol are significantly more acidic than water, due to inductive electron withdrawal by the electronegative halogens (and the second oxygen in chloral hydrate). In the case of carboxylic acids, if the electrophilic character of the carbonyl carbon is decreased the acidity of the carboxylic acid will also decrease. Similarly, an increase in its electrophilicity will increase the acidity of the acid. Acetic acid is ten times weaker an acid than formic acid (first two entries in the second row), confirming the electron donating character of an alkyl group relative to hydrogen, as noted earlier in a discussion of carbocation stability. Electronegative substituents increase acidity by inductive electron withdrawal. As expected, the higher the electronegativity of the substituent the greater the increase in acidity (F > Cl > Br > I), and the closer the substituent is to the carboxyl group the greater is its effect (isomers in the 3rd row). Substituents also influence the acidity of benzoic acid derivatives, but resonance effects compete with inductive effects. The methoxy group is electron donating and the nitro group is electron withdrawing (last three entries in the table of pKa values). For additional information about substituent effects on the acidity of carboxylic acids Click Here