# 18.1: What is a free radical?


In  chemistry , a  radical  (more precisely, a  free radical ) is an  atom molecule , or  ion  that has  unpaired valence electrons  or an  open electron shell , and therefore may be seen as having one or more “dangling”  covalent bonds .
With some exceptions, these “dangling” bonds make free radicals highly chemically reactive towards other substances, or even towards themselves: their molecules will often spontaneously dimerize or polymerize if they come in contact with each other. Most radicals are reasonably stable only at very low concentrations in inert media or in a vacuum.Free radicals may be created in a number of ways, including synthesis with very dilute or rarefied reagents, reactions at very low temperatures, or breakup of larger molecules. The last can be effected by any process that puts enough energy into the parent molecule, such as ionizing radiation, heat, electrical discharges, electrolysis, and chemical reactions. Indeed, radicals are intermediate stages in many chemical reactions.Until late in the 20th century the word “radical” was used in chemistry to indicate any connected group of atoms, such as a methyl group or a carboxyl, whether it was part of a larger molecule or a molecule on its own. The qualifier “free” was then needed to specify the unbound case. Following recent nomenclature revisions, a part of a larger molecule is now called a functional group or substituent, and “radical” now implies “free”. However, the old nomenclature may still occur in the literature.

## History

The first organic free radical identified was triphenylmethyl radical. This species was discovered by Moses Gomberg in 1900 at the University of Michigan USA. Historically, the term radical in radical theory was also used for bound parts of the molecule, especially when they remain unchanged in reactions. These are now called functional groups. For example, methyl alcohol was described as consisting of a methyl “radical” and a hydroxyl “radical”. Neither are radicals in the modern chemical sense, as they are permanently bound to each other, and have no unpaired, reactive electrons; however, they can be observed as radicals in mass spectrometry when broken apart by irradiation with energetic electrons.

## Depiction in chemical reactions

In chemical equations, free radicals are frequently denoted by a dot placed immediately to the right of the atomic symbol or molecular formula as follows:

$\mathrm{Cl}_2 \; \xrightarrow{UV} \; {\mathrm{Cl} \cdot} + {\mathrm{Cl} \cdot}$
Chlorine gas can be broken down by ultraviolet light to form atomic chlorine radicals.

Radical reaction mechanisms use single-headed arrows to depict the movement of single electrons:

The homolytic cleavage of the breaking bond is drawn with a ‘fish-hook’ arrow to distinguish from the usual movement of two electrons depicted by a standard curly arrow. It should be noted that the second electron of the breaking bond also moves to pair up with the attacking radical electron; this is not explicitly indicated in this case.

Free radicals also take part in radical addition and radical substitution as reactive intermediates. Chain reactions involving free radicals can usually be divided into three distinct processes. These are initiationpropagation, and termination., discussed in detail in section 18.4.