Properties of Alcohols

Continuing the post on Alcohols, the physical and chemical properties are discussed in this post. Classification, Methods of Preparation and Important Compounds are in the former post. Click here to go that post.

Physical Properties

Alcohols and phenols consist of two parts, an alkyl/aryl group and a hydroxyl group. The properties of alcohols and phenols are chiefly due to the hydroxyl group. The nature of alkyl and aryl groups simply modify these properties.

Boiling Points

The boiling points of alcohols and phenols increase with increase in the number of carbon atoms (increase in van der Waals forces). In alcohols, the boiling points decrease with increase of branching in carbon chain (because of decrease in van der Waals forces with decrease in surface area). The –OH group in alcohols and phenols is involved in intermolecular hydrogen bonding as shown below:


It is interesting to note that boiling points of alcohols and phenols are higher in comparison to other classes of compounds, namely hydrocarbons, ethers, haloalkanes and haloarenes of comparable molecular masses. For example, ethanol and propane have comparable molecular masses but their boiling points differ widely. The boiling point of methoxymethane is intermediate of the two boiling points.The high boiling points of alcohols are mainly due to the presence of intermolecular hydrogen bonding in them which is lacking in ethers and hydrocarbons.


Solubility of alcohols and phenols in water is due to their ability to form hydrogen bonds with water molecules. The solubility decreases with increase in size of alkyl/aryl (hydrophobic) groups. Several of the lower molecular mass alcohols are miscible with water in all proportions.

Chemical Properties

Alcohols are versatile compounds. They react both as nucleophiles and electrophiles. The bond between O–H is broken when alcohols react as nucleophiles. he bond between C–O is broken when they react as electrophiles.

Reactions involving cleavage of O-H

Acidity of Alcohols and Phenols

Alcohols and phenols react with active metals such as sodium, potassium and aluminium to yield corresponding alkoxides/phenoxides and hydrogen. In addition to this, phenols react with aqueous sodium hydroxide to form sodium phenoxides.


The above reactions show that alcohols and phenols are acidic in nature. In fact, alcohols and phenols are Brönsted acids i.e., they can donate a proton to a stronger base.  The acidic character of alcohols is due to the polar nature of O–H bond. An electron-releasing group (–CH3, –C2H5) increases electron density on oxygen tending to decrease the polarity of O-H bond. This decreases the acid strength. For this reason, the acid strength of alcohols decreases in the following order: Primary > Secondary > Tertiary.

Alcohols are, however, weaker acids than water. Alkoxide ion is a better proton acceptor than hydroxide ion, which suggests that alkoxides are stronger bases (sodium ethoxide is a stronger base than sodium hydroxide). Alcohols act as Bronsted bases as well. It is due to the presence of unshared electron pairs on oxygen, which makes them proton acceptors.

The reactions of phenol with metals (e.g., sodium, aluminium) and sodium hydroxide indicate its acidic nature. The hydroxyl group, in phenol is directly attached to the sp2 hybridised carbon of benzene ring which acts as an electron withdrawing group. Due to this, the charge distribution in phenol molecule, as depicted in its resonance structures, causes the oxygen of –OH group to be positive.alcochem2

The reaction of phenol with aqueous sodium hydroxide indicates that phenols are stronger acids than alcohols and water. Let us examine how a compound in which hydroxyl group attached to an aromatic ring is more acidic than the one in which hydroxyl group is attached to an alkyl group. The ionisation of an alcohol and a phenol takes place as follows:


Due to the higher electronegativity of sp2 hybridised carbon of phenol to which –OH is attached, electron density decreases on oxygen. This increases the polarity of O–H bond and results in an increase in ionisation of phenols than that of alcohols. Now let us examine the stabilities of alkoxide and phenoxide ions. In alkoxide ion, the negative charge is localised on oxygen while in phenoxide ion, the charge is delocalised. The delocalisation of negative charge (structures I-V) makes phenoxide ion more stable and favours the ionisation of phenol. Although there is also charge delocalisation in phenol, its resonance structures have charge separation due to which the phenol molecule is less stable than phenoxide ion.


In substituted phenols, the presence of electron withdrawing groups such as nitro group, enhances the acidic strength of phenol. This effect is more pronounced when such a group is present at ortho and para positions. It is due to the effective delocalisation of negative charge in phenoxide ion. On the other hand, electron releasing groups, such as alkyl groups, in general, do not favour the formation of phenoxide ion resulting in decrease in acid strength. Cresols, for example, are less acidic than phenol.


Alcohols and phenols react with carboxylic acids, acid chlorides and acid anhydrides to form esters. alcochem4.png

The reaction with carboxylic acid and acid anhydride is carried out in the presence of a small amount of concentrated sulphuric acid. The reaction is reversible, and therefore, water is removed as soon as it is formed. The reaction with acid chloride is carried out in the presence of a base (pyridine) so as to neutralise HCl which is formed during the reaction. It shifts the equilibrium to the right hand side. The introduction of acetyl group in alcohols or phenols is known as acetylation. Acetylation of salicylic acid produces aspirinAspirin possesses analgesic, antiinflammatory and antipyretic properties.


Reactions involving cleavage of C-O

Reaction with hydrogen halides

Alcohols react with hydrogen halides to form alkyl halides   { ROH + HX → R–X + H2O }

The difference in reactivity of three classes of alcohols with HCl distinguishes them from one another (Lucas Test). Alcohols are soluble in Lucas reagent (conc. HCl and ZnCl2) while their halides are immiscible and produce turbidity in solution. In case of tertiary alcohols, turbidity is produced immediately as they form the halides easily. Primary alcohols do not produce turbidity at room temperature.


Alcohols undergo dehydration (removal of a molecule of water) to form alkenes on treating with a protic acid e.g., concentrated H2SO4 or H3PO4, or catalysts such as anhydrous zinc chloride or alumina.

Ethanol undergoes dehydration by heating it with concentrated H2SO4 at 443 K. Secondary and tertiary alcohols are dehydrated under milder conditions. Thus, the relative ease of dehydration of alcohols follows the following order: Tertiary  > Secondary > Primary .


The mechanism of dehydration of ethanol involves the following steps:



Oxidation of alcohols involves the formation of a carbonoxygen double bond with cleavage of an O-H and C-H bonds. Such a cleavage and formation of bonds occur in oxidation reactions. These are also known as dehydrogenation reactions as these involve loss of dihydrogen from an alcohol molecule. Depending on the oxidising agent used, a primary alcohol is oxidised to an aldehyde which in turn is oxidised to a carboxylic acid.

Strong oxidising agents such as acidified potassium permanganate are used for getting carboxylic acids from alcohols directly. CrO3 in anhydrous medium is used as the oxidising agent for the isolation of aldehydes. A better reagent for oxidation of primary alcohols to aldehydes in good yield is pyridinium chlorochromate (PCC), a complex of chromium trioxide with pyridine and HCl.

Tertiary alcohols do not undergo oxidation reaction. Under strong reaction conditions such as strong oxidising agents (KMnO4) and elevated temperatures, cleavage of various C-C bonds takes place and a mixture of carboxylic acids containing lesser number of carbon atoms is formed. When the vapours of a primary or a secondary alcohol are passed over heated copper at 573 K, dehydrogenation takes place and an aldehyde or a ketone is formed while tertiary alcohols undergo dehydration


Reactions of Phenols


Oxidation of phenol with chromic acid produces a conjugated diketone known as benzoquinone. In the presence of air, phenols are slowly oxidised to dark coloured mixtures containing quinones.phenchem1.png

Reaction of Phenol with Zinc dust

Phenol is converted to benzene on heating with zinc dust.phenchem2.png

Reimer-Tiemann reaction

On treating phenol with chloroform in the presence of sodium hydroxide, a –CHO group is introduced at ortho position of benzene ring. This reaction is known as Reimer – Tiemann reaction. The intermediate substituted benzal chloride is hydrolysed in the presence of alkali to produce salicylaldehyde. If carbon tetrachloride is used in place of chloroform, salicylic acid shall form.phenchem3.png

Kolbe’s reaction

Phenoxide ion generated by treating phenol with sodium hydroxide is even more reactive than phenol towards electrophilic aromatic substitution. Hence, it undergoes electrophilic substitution with carbon dioxide, a weak electrophile. Ortho-hydroxybenzoic acid is formed as the main reaction product.phenchem4.png

Electrophilic Aromatic Substitution

In phenols, the reactions that take place on the aromatic ring are electrophilic substitution reactions. The –OH group attached to the benzene ring activates it towards electrophilic substitution. Also, it directs the incoming group to ortho and para positions in the ring as these positions become electron rich due to the resonance effect caused by –OH group.

Common electrophilic aromatic substitution reactions taking place in phenol are as follows:


With dilute nitric acid at low temperature (298 K), phenol yields a mixture of ortho and para nitrophenols. The ortho and para isomers can be separated by steam distillation. o-Nitrophenol is steam volatile due to intramolecular hydrogen bonding while p-nitrophenol is less volatile due to intermolecular hydrogen bonding which causes the association of molecules. With concentrated nitric acid, phenol is converted to 2,4,6-trinitrophenol. The product is commonly known as picric acid. The yield of the reaction product is poor.


Nowadays picric acid is prepared by treating phenol first with concentrated sulphuric acid which converts it to phenol-2,4-disulphonic acid, and then with concentrated nitric acid to get 2,4,6-trinitrophenol. 2, 4, 6 – Trinitrophenol is a strong acid due to the presence of three electron withdrawing –NOgroups which facilitate the release of hydrogen ion.


On treating phenol with bromine, different reaction products are formed under different experimental conditions.

  1. When the reaction is carried out in solvents of low polarity such as CHCl3 or CS2 and at low temperature, monobromophenols are formed.phenchem6.png The usual halogenation of benzene takes place in the presence of a Lewis acid, such as FeBr3, which polarises the halogen molecule. In case of phenol, the polarisation of bromine molecule takes place even in the absence of Lewis acid. It is due to the highly activating effect of –OH group attached to the benzene ring.
  2. When phenol is treated with bromine water, 2,4,6-tribromophenol is formed as white precipitate.

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