What’s a Racemic Mixture?

by James

in Organic Chemistry 1, Stereochemistry

What do you notice about these three pictures? Count the number of left gloves and right gloves.

 6 left and 6 right gloves, correct?

What about this one:

I count 8 right gloves, 4 left gloves. So there’s a slight excess of right gloves here.

Finally, this figure:

ONLY right hand gloves here. 12 right gloves, zero left gloves.

So what does this have to do with organic chemistry?

Gloves are chiral objects. That is, they lack an internal plane of symmetry. Left gloves and right gloves are mirror images of each other, but they can’t be superimposed. 

In chemistry, there’s a word we have to describe a pair of non-superimposable mirror images – they’re called enantiomers

Tying it back to the drawings, we can have three types of situations.

  1. In the first drawing, we have an equal number of left and right gloves (i.e. enantiomers). This is called a racemic mixture of enantiomers.
  2. In the second drawing, we have an excess of right gloves compared to left gloves. In a  situtation like this we can say we have an “enantiomeric excess” of gloves,  or alternatively, the mixture is “enantioenriched” in the right-hand glove. [We can also calculate the "excess" here: the mixture is 66% right and 33% left - so we have a 33% "excess" of the right-hand enantiomer].
  3. In the third drawing, we have only right-hand gloves. This is said to be an “enantiomerically pure” mixture of gloves, since we have only one enantiomer present.
To tie it back to chemistry, let’s say we have a solution of a chiral molecule, like 2-butanol, which can exist as either the (R)-enantiomer or the (S)-enantiomer.
  • A solution containing equal amounts of (R)-2-butanol and (S)-2-butanol is a racemic mixture. 
  • A solution containing an excess of either the (R)-enantiomer or the (S)-enantiomer would be enantioenriched. 
  • A solution containing only the (R)-enantiomer or the (S)-enantiomer will be enantiomerically pure. 
I hope this clears up any confusion!
A big thanks to Agnieszka at IlluScientia for the glove drawings.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

asu samuel October 23, 2012 at 3:25 am

This is exactly what i was thought by proff Anam. All thanks ti this website it has enlighten me the more. All thanks to all who had successfully made this page

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Sneha November 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Thank you so much this makes so much sense!!!

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Maansi November 15, 2013 at 11:22 am

Really creative way of explaining…hatsoff

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rodina December 21, 2013 at 11:46 am

thank you soooooo much >> its is very creative way fo explaining :)

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Gabrielle April 21, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Come be my chemistry teacher please ! love the use of the gloves ! thank you so much

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nadine shabti June 26, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Can we predict when we will get a racemic mixture?

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Amir July 23, 2014 at 9:40 am

This is the best explanation I’ve ever read on this topic! Awesome!

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