Home / Initiation, Propagation, Termination
Free Radical Reactions
Initiation, Propagation, Termination
Last updated: March 21st, 2019 |
Waaay back when we started to go through free radical substitution reactions, you might recall that we looked a reaction like this one:
Now that we know a little more about what free radicals are and their key properties, the question for today is, “how does this reaction work?“. We’re going to go through the key steps of this reaction and learn that they are composed of three key phases: initiation, termination, and propagation.
In the last post, we talked about how nothing happens unless heat or light is applied. That’s because either of these energy sources can lead to homolytic cleavage of relatively weak bonds like Cl-Cl to give free radicals [i.e. Cl• ]
Every free radical reaction begins with a step where free radicals are created, and for that reason this initial step is called initiation.
Here’s the equation. Two things to note:
- The reaction is an equilibrium – at any given time there is only a small concentration of the free radical present (but this will be enough, as we shall see)
- Note that there is a net increase of free radicals in this reaction. We’re going from zero (in the reactants) to two (in the products).
It’s only once the free radicals are present that our substrate (CH4 in our example) gets involved. Chlorine radicals are highly reactive, and can combine with a hydrogen from methane to give the methyl radical, •CH3
If you count the number of free radicals in this equation, you’ll note that there’s one in the reactants and one in the products. So there is no net increase in the number of free radicals.
This type of step is referred to as “propagation”.
If you’re keeping score, by this point you should be able to see that there’s only one bond left to form before our reaction is complete. We need to form a C–Cl bond.
It’s here where it’s easy to make a little mistake. Seeing that there’s two chlorine radicals formed in the initiation step, it would seem natural to bring together the methyl radical and the chlorine radical to form CH3–Cl . Right?????
Note the number of free radicals has decreased here, not stayed the same. It can’t be propagation!
In fact, we can do the proper “propagation” step this way: Take the methyl radical, and it reacts with the Cl2 still present. This gives us CH3Cl and the chlorine radical. Note that there has been no net change in the number of free radicals, so this is still a “propagation”.
Note again that we are forming a chlorine radical! What’s so crucial about this? It’s crucial because this chlorine radical can then perform Propagation Step #1 on a new molecule of our substrate (CH4), continuing the process. It’s a chain reaction – once generated, chlorine radical is catalytic. That’s why we only need a small amount of chlorine radical for this reaction to proceed.
Can this chain reaction go on forever? No.
Let’s think about two limiting cases. If the concentration of Cl2 is low relative to CH4 (in other words, Cl2 is our limiting reagent) then the rate of Propagation Step #2 will slow down as its concentration decreases. Without any Cl2 to react with, our •CH3 radicals can just combine with another free radical (such as •Cl) to give CH3Cl, for example. There is essentially no barrier to this reaction. Note that here the number of free radicals decreases from 2 to zero. This is called termination.
It’s also possible for two methyl groups to combine together to give CH3–CH3 ; this is also termination!
Let’s put all of these steps together so we can clearly see the initiation, propagation, and termination steps.
These three types of steps are encountered in every free-radical reaction.
The bottom line here is that by counting the number of radicals created or destroyed in each step, you can determine if the step is initiation, propagation, or termination.
- Intiation -> net formation of radicals
- Propagation -> no change in the number of free radicals
- Termination -> net destruction of free radicals
We’ll leave with two teasers for future posts.
First… note that here we’re using CH4, where every C–H bond is identical. What might happen if we used an alkane where all the C–H bonds aren’t equal… like propane, or pentane, for example?
Secondly, this reaction fails spectacularly when Br2 is used instead of Cl2 for the reaction of CH4. However, we’ll see that Br2 can work in certain special cases.
Next Post: Isomers From Free Radical Reactions
We just talked about the situation where one equivalent of chlorine (Cl2) is used. What happens when we use multiple equivalents, or even a vast excess?
Think about it for a second. Imagine we had multiple equivalents of Cl2 in the presence of CH3Cl. What do you think might happen?
An atom of Cl• could react with CH3Cl to give •CH2Cl [and HCl], which could then react with Cl2 to give CH2Cl2 !
Likewise, if we still have an excess of Cl2, then we will observe conversion of CH2Cl2 to CHCl3.
Finally, given enough Cl2 we could then imagine the conversion of CHCl3 to give CCl4.
At this point there are no further C-H bonds to react with the chlorine radical, and thus our reaction would eventually terminate.
The bottom line here is that alkanes, given a large enough excess of Cl2, will eventually have all of their hydrogens replaced with chlorine.
This pathway is in fact how dichloromethane (CH2Cl2 – a common laboratory solvent) chloroform (CHCl3) and carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) are produced industrially. For many decades, CCl4 was produced on mega-ton scale for use as a refrigerant and dry cleaning solvent until studies implicated it and other CFC’s in depletion of the ozone layer.
00 General Chemistry Review
- Gen Chem and Organic Chem: How are they different?
- How Gen Chem Relates to Organic Chem, Pt. 1 - The Atom
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 2 - Electrons and Orbitals
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 3 - Effective Nuclear Charge
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 4 - Chemical Bonding
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 5 - Understanding Periodic Trends
- From Gen Chem to Org Chem, Pt. 6 - Lewis Structures, A Parable
- From Gen Chem to Org Chem, Pt. 7 - Lewis Structures
- From Gen Chem to Org Chem, Pt. 8 - Ionic and Covalent Bonding
- From Gen Chem to Org Chem, Pt. 9 - Acids and Bases
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 10 - Hess' Law
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 11 - The Second Law
- From Gen Chem to Org Chem Pt. 12 - Kinetics
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Pt. 13 - Equilibria
- From Gen Chem to Organic Chem, Part 14: Wrapup
01 Bonding, Structure, and Resonance
- How Concepts Build Up In Org 1 ("The Pyramid")
- Review of Atomic Orbitals for Organic Chemistry
- How Do We Know Methane (CH4) Is Tetrahedral?
- Hybrid Orbitals
- How To Determine Hybridization: A Shortcut
- Orbital Hybridization And Bond Strengths
- Sigma bonds come in six varieties: Pi bonds come in one
- A Key Skill: How to Calculate Formal Charge
- Partial Charges Give Clues About Electron Flow
- The Four Intermolecular Forces and How They Affect Boiling Points
- 3 Trends That Affect Boiling Points
- How To Use Electronegativity To Determine Electron Density (and why NOT to trust formal charge)
- Introduction to Resonance
- How To Use Curved Arrows To Interchange Resonance Forms
- Evaluating Resonance Forms (1) - The Rule of Least Charges
- Evaluating Resonance Forms (2): Applying Electronegativity
- Evaluating Resonance Forms: Factors That Stabilize Negative Charges
- Evaluating Resonance Forms (4): Positive Charges
- Exploring Resonance: Pi-Donation
- Exploring Resonance: Pi-acceptors
- In Summary: Resonance
- Drawing Resonance Structures: 3 Common Mistakes To Avoid
- How to apply electronegativity and resonance to understand reactivity
02 Acid Base Reactions
- Introduction to Acid-Base Reactions
- Walkthrough of Acid Base Reactions (1)
- Walkthrough of Acid Base Reactions (2): Basicity
- Walkthrough of Acid-Base Reactions (3) - Acidity Trends
- Five Key Factors That Influence Acidity
- Walkthrough of Acid-Base reactions (4) - pKa
- How to Use a pKa Table
- The pKa Table Is Your Friend
- A Handy Rule of Thumb for Acid-Base Reactions
- Acid Base Reactions Are Fast
- Putting Acidity In Perspective
- Acid Base Reactions: What's the Point?
03 Alkanes and Nomenclature
- Summary Sheet - Alkane Nomenclature
- Meet the (Most Important) Functional Groups
- Condensed Formulas: Deciphering What the Brackets Mean
- Hidden Hydrogens, Hidden Lone Pairs, Hidden Counterions
- Don't Be Futyl, Learn The Butyls
- Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, Quaternary In Organic Chemistry
- Branching, and Its Affect On Melting and Boiling Points
- The Many, Many Ways of Drawing Butane
- Common Mistakes: Drawing Tetrahedral Carbons
- Common Mistakes in Organic Chemistry: Pentavalent Carbon
- Table of Functional Group Priorities for Nomenclature
- Organic Chemistry IUPAC Nomenclature Demystified With A Simple Puzzle Piece Approach
04 Conformations and Cycloalkanes
- Newman Projections
- Putting the Newman into ACTION
- Introduction to Cycloalkanes (1)
- Geometric Isomers In Small Rings: Cis And Trans Cycloalkanes
- Calculation of Ring Strain In Cycloalkanes
- Cycloalkanes - Ring Strain In Cyclopropane And Cyclobutane
- Cyclohexane Conformations
- Cyclohexane Chair Conformation: An Aerial Tour
- How To Draw The Cyclohexane Chair Conformation
- The Cyclohexane Chair Flip
- The Cyclohexane Chair Flip - Energy Diagram
- Substituted Cyclohexanes - Axial vs Equatorial
- Ranking The Bulkiness Of Substituents On Cyclohexanes: "A-Values"
- The Ups and Downs of Cyclohexanes
- Cyclohexane Chair Conformation Stability: Which One Is Lower Energy?
- Fused Rings - Cis-Decalin and Trans-Decalin
- Naming Bicyclic Compounds - Fused, Bridged, and Spiro
- Bredt's Rule (And Summary of Cycloalkanes)
05 A Primer On Organic Reactions
- The Most Important Question To Ask When Learning a New Reaction
- The 4 Major Classes of Reactions in Org 1
- Learning New Reactions: How Do The Electrons Move?
- How (and why) electrons flow
- The Third Most Important Question to Ask When Learning A New Reaction
- 7 Factors that stabilize negative charge in organic chemistry
- 7 Factors That Stabilize Positive Charge in Organic Chemistry
- Common Mistakes: Formal Charges Can Mislead
- Nucleophiles and Electrophiles
- Curved Arrows (for reactions)
- Curved Arrows (2): Initial Tails and Final Heads
- Nucleophilicity vs. Basicity
- The Three Classes of Nucleophiles
- What Makes A Good Nucleophile?
- Leaving Groups Are Nucleophiles Acting In Reverse
- What makes a good leaving group?
- 3 Factors That Stabilize Carbocations
- Three Factors that Destabilize Carbocations
- What's a Transition State?
- Hammond's Postulate
- Grossman's Rule
- Draw The Ugly Version First
- Learning Organic Chemistry Reactions: A Checklist (PDF)
- Introduction to Addition Reactions
- Introduction to Elimination Reactions
- Introduction to Free Radical Substitution Reactions
- Introduction to Oxidative Cleavage Reactions
06 Free Radical Reactions
- Bond Dissociation Energies = Homolytic Cleavage
- Free Radical Reactions
- 3 Factors That Stabilize Free Radicals
- What Factors Destabilize Free Radicals?
- Bond Strengths And Radical Stability
- Free Radical Initiation: Why Is "Light" Or "Heat" Required?
- Initiation, Propagation, Termination
- Isomers From Free Radical Reactions
- Selectivity In Free Radical Reactions
- Selectivity in Free Radical Reactions: Bromine vs. Chlorine
- Halogenation At Tiffany's
- Allylic Bromination
- Bonus Topic: Allylic Rearrangements
- In Summary: Free Radicals
- Synthesis (2) - Reactions of Alkanes
07 Stereochemistry and Chirality
- On Cats, Part 4: Enantiocats
- On Cats, Part 6: Stereocenters
- The Single Swap Rule
- Introduction to Assigning (R) and (S): The Cahn-Ingold-Prelog Rules
- Assigning Cahn-Ingold-Prelog (CIP) Priorities (2) - The Method of Dots
- Types of Isomers: Constitutional Isomers, Stereoisomers, Enantiomers, and Diastereomers
- Enantiomers vs Diastereomers vs The Same? Two Methods For Solving Problems
- Assigning R/S To Newman Projections (And Converting Newman To Line Diagrams)
- How To Determine R and S Configurations On A Fischer Projection
- The Meso Trap
- Optical Rotation, Optical Activity, and Specific Rotation
- Optical Purity and Enantiomeric Excess
- What's a Racemic Mixture?
- Chiral Allenes And Chiral Axes
08 Substitution Reactions
- Introduction to Nucleophilic Substitution Reactions
- Walkthrough of Substitution Reactions (1) - Introduction
- Two Types of Substitution Reactions
- Common Blind Spot: Intramolecular Reactions
- Why the SN2 Reaction Is Powerful
- The SN1 Mechanism
- The Conjugate Acid Is A Better Leaving Group
- Comparing the SN1 and SN2 Reactions
- Polar Protic? Polar Aprotic? Nonpolar? All About Solvents
- Steric Hindrance is Like a Fat Goalie
- The SN2 Mechanism
- The Conjugate Base is Always a Stronger Nucleophile
09 Elimination Reactions
- Walkthrough of Elimination Reactions (1)
- Elimination Reactions (2): Zaitsev's Rule
- Elimination Reactions Are Favored By Heat
- Two Types of Elimination Reactions
- The E1 Reaction
- The E2 Mechanism
- Comparing the E1 and E2 Reactions
- The E2 Reaction and Cyclohexane Rings
- Bulky Bases in Elimination Reactions
- Comparing the E1 and SN1 Reactions
- Elimination (E1) Reactions With Rearrangements
11 SN1/SN2/E1/E2 Decision
12 Alkene Reactions
- Addition Reactions: Elimination's Opposite
- Selective vs. Specific
- Addition Reactions: Regioselectivity
- Addition Reactions: Stereochemistry
- Markovnikov's Rule (1)
- Markovnikov's Rule (2) - Why It Works
- Curved Arrows and Addition Reactions
- Addition Pattern #1: The "Carbocation Pathway"
- Rearrangements in Alkene Addition Reactions
- Bromination of Alkenes - How Does It Work?
- Bromination of Alkenes: The Mechanism
- Alkene Addition Pattern #2: The "Three-Membered Ring" Pathway
- Hydroboration of Alkenes
- Hydroboration of Alkenes: The Mechanism
- Alkene Addition Pattern #3: The "Concerted" Pathway
- An Arrow-Pushing Dilemma In Concerted Reactions
- A Fourth Alkene Addition Pattern - Free Radical Addition
- Alkene Reactions: Ozonolysis
- Summary: Alkene Reaction Pathways
- Synthesis (4) - Alkene Reaction Map, Including Alkyl Halide Reactions
13 Alkyne Reactions
- The 2 Most Important Reactions of Alkynes
- Partial Reduction of Alkynes To Obtain Cis or Trans Alkenes
- Hydroboration and Oxymercuration of Alkynes
- Alkyne Reaction Patterns - The Carbocation Pathway
- Alkyne Addition Reactions: The 3-Membered Ring Pathway
- Alkyne Addition Reactions - The "Concerted" Pathway
- Alkynes Via Elimination Reactions
- Alkynes Are A Blank Canvas
- Synthesis (5) - Reactions of Alkynes
14 Alcohols, Epoxides and Ethers
- E and Z Notation For Alkenes (+ Cis/Trans)
- Alcohols (1) - Nomenclature and Properties
- Alcohols Can Act As Acids Or Bases (And Why It Matters)
- Alcohols (3) - Acidity and Basicity
- The Williamson Ether Synthesis
- Williamson Ether Synthesis: Planning
- Ethers From Alkenes, Tertiary Alkyl Halides and Alkoxymercuration
- Alcohols To Ethers via Acid Catalysis
- Cleavage Of Ethers With Acid
- Epoxides - The Outlier Of The Ether Family
- Opening of Epoxides With Acid
- Epoxide Ring Opening With Base
- Making Alkyl Halides From Alcohols
- Tosylates And Mesylates
- PBr3 and SOCl2
- Elimination Reactions of Alcohols
- Elimination of Alcohols To Alkenes With POCl3
- Alcohol Oxidation: "Strong" and "Weak" Oxidants
- Demystifying Alcohol Oxidations
- Intramolecular Reactions of Alcohols and Ethers
- Protecting Groups For Alcohols
- Thiols And Thioethers
- Calculating the oxidation state of a carbon
- Oxidation and Reduction in Organic Chemistry
- Oxidation Ladders
- SOCl2 Mechanism For Alcohols To Alkyl Halides: SN2 versus SNi
- Alcohol Reactions Roadmap (PDF)
- What's An Organometallic?
- Formation of Grignard and Organolithium Reagents
- Organometallics Are Strong Bases
- Reactions of Grignard Reagents
- Protecting Groups In Grignard Reactions
- Grignard Practice Problems: Synthesis (1)
- Grignard Reactions And Synthesis (2)
- Organocuprates (Gilman Reagents): How They're Made
- Gilman Reagents (Organocuprates): What They're Used For
- Common Mistakes with Carbonyls: Carboxylic Acids... Are Acids!
- The Heck, Suzuki, and Olefin Metathesis Reactions (And Why They Don't Belong In Most Introductory Organic Chemistry Courses)
- Reaction Map: Reactions of Organometallics
- Degrees of Unsaturation (or IHD, Index of Hydrogen Deficiency)
- Conjugation And Color (+ How Bleach Works)
- Introduction To UV-Vis Spectroscopy
- UV-Vis Spectroscopy: Absorbance of Carbonyls
- UV-Vis Spectroscopy: Practice Questions
- Bond Vibrations, Infrared Spectroscopy, and the "Ball and Spring" Model
- Infrared Spectroscopy: A Quick Primer On Interpreting Spectra
- IR Spectroscopy: 4 Practice Problems
- Homotopic, Enantiotopic, Diastereotopic
- Liquid Gold: Pheromones In Doe Urine
- Natural Product Isolation (1) - Extraction
- Natural Product Isolation (2) - Purification Techniques, An Overview
- Structure Determination Case Study: Deer Tarsal Gland Pheromone
17 Dienes and MO Theory
- What To Expect In Organic Chemistry 2
- How Concepts Build Up In Org 2
- Are these molecules conjugated?
- Conjugation And Resonance In Organic Chemistry
- Bonding And Antibonding Pi Orbitals
- Molecular Orbitals of The Allyl Cation, Allyl Radical, and Allyl Anion
- Pi Molecular Orbitals of Butadiene
- Reactions of Dienes: 1,2 and 1,4 Addition
- Thermodynamic and Kinetic Control
- More On 1,2 and 1,4 Additions To Dienes
- s-cis and s-trans
- The Diels-Alder Reaction
- Cyclic Dienes and Dienophiles in the Diels-Alder Reaction
- Stereochemistry of the Diels-Alder Reaction
- Exo vs Endo Products In The Diels Alder: How To Tell Them Apart
- HOMO and LUMO In the Diels Alder Reaction
- Why Are Endo vs Exo Products Favored in the Diels-Alder Reaction?
- Diels-Alder Reaction: Kinetic and Thermodynamic Control
- The Retro Diels-Alder Reaction
- Regiochemistry In The Diels-Alder Reaction
19 Reactions of Aromatic Molecules
- Electrophilic Aromatic Substitution: Introduction
- Activating and Deactivating Groups In Electrophilic Aromatic Substitution
- Electrophilic Aromatic Substitution - The Mechanism
- Ortho-, Para- and Meta- Directors in Electrophilic Aromatic Substitution
- Understanding Ortho, Para, and Meta Directors
- Why are halogens ortho- para- directors?
- Disubstituted Benzenes: The Strongest Electron-Donor "Wins"
- Electrophilic Aromatic Substitutions (1) - Halogenation of Benzene
- Electrophilic Aromatic Substitutions (2) - Nitration and Sulfonation
- EAS Reactions (3) - Friedel-Crafts Acylation and Friedel-Crafts Alkylation
- Intramolecular Friedel-Crafts Reactions
- Nucleophilic Aromatic Substitution (NAS)
- Nucleophilic Aromatic Substitution (2) - The Benzyne Mechanism
- Reactions on the "Benzylic" Carbon: Bromination And Oxidation
- The Wolff-Kishner, Clemmensen, And Other Carbonyl Reductions
- More Reactions on the Aromatic Sidechain: Reduction of Nitro Groups and the Baeyer Villiger
- Aromatic Synthesis (1) - "Order Of Operations"
- Synthesis of Benzene Derivatives (2) - Polarity Reversal
- Aromatic Synthesis (3) - Sulfonyl Blocking Groups
- Synthesis (7): Reaction Map of Benzene and Related Aromatic Compounds
20 Aldehydes and Ketones
- Weird Nomenclature In Carbonyl Chemistry
- Aldehydes and Ketones: 14 Reactions With The Same Mechanism
- Wittig Reaction
- Imines and Enamines
- On Acetals and Hemiacetals
- Carbonyl Chemistry: 10 Key Concepts (Part 1)
- Carbonyls: 10 key concepts (Part 2)
- Acid Catalysis Of Carbonyl Addition Reactions: Too Much Of A Good Thing?
- Breaking Down Carbonyl Reaction Mechanisms: Anionic Nucleophiles (Part 1)
- Breaking Down Carbonyl Reaction Mechanisms: Reactions of Anionic Nucleophiles (Part 2)
21 Carboxylic Acid Derivatives
- Simplifying the reactions of carboxylic acid derivatives (part 1)
- Carbonyl Mechanisms: Neutral Nucleophiles, Part 1
- Carbonyl chemistry: Anionic versus Neutral Nucleophiles
- Proton Transfers Can Be Tricky
- Let's Talk About the [1,2] Elimination
- Carbonyl Chemistry: Learn Six Mechanisms For the Price Of One
- Summary Sheet #5 - 9 Key Mechanisms in Carbonyl Chemistry
- Summary Sheet #7 - 21 Carbonyl Mechanisms on 1 page
- How Reactions Are Like Music
- Making Music With Mechanisms (PADPED)
- The Magic Wand of Proton Transfer
- The Power of Acid Catalysis
22 Enols and Enolates
- The Amide Functional Group: Properties, Synthesis, and Nomenclature
- Basicity of Amines And pKaH
- 5 Key Basicity Trends of Amines
- The Mesomeric Effect And Aromatic Amines
- Nucleophilicity of Amines
- Alkylation of Amines (Sucks!)
- Reductive Amination
- The Gabriel Synthesis
- Some Reactions of Azides
- The Hofmann Elimination
- The Hofmann and Curtius Rearrangements
- The Cope Elimination
- Protecting Groups for Amines - Carbamates
- The Strecker Synthesis of Amino Acids
- Introduction to Peptide Synthesis
- Reactions of Diazonium Salts: Sandmeyer and Related Reactions
- D and L Notation For Sugars
- What is Mutarotation?
- Reducing Sugars
- Pyranoses and Furanoses: Ring-Chain Tautomerism In Sugars
- The Big Damn Post Of Carbohydrate-Related Chemistry Definitions
- The Haworth Projection
- Converting a Fischer Projection To A Haworth (And Vice Versa)
- Reactions of Sugars: Glycosylation and Protection
- The Ruff Degradation and Kiliani-Fischer Synthesis
25 Fun and Miscellaneous
- Organic Chemistry and the New MCAT
- A Gallery of Some Interesting Molecules From Nature
- The Organic Chemistry Behind "The Pill"
- Maybe they should call them, "Formal Wins" ?
- Introduction To Synthesis
- Organic Chemistry Is Shit
- The 8 Types of Arrows In Organic Chemistry, Explained
- The Most Annoying Exceptions in Org 1 (Part 1)
- The Most Annoying Exceptions in Org 1 (Part 2)
- Org 1 Review Quizzes
- Screw Organic Chemistry, I'm Just Going To Write About Cats
- On Cats, Part 1: Conformations and Configurations
- On Cats, Part 2: Cat Line Diagrams
- The Marriage May Be Bad, But the Divorce Still Costs Money
- Why Do Organic Chemists Use Kilocalories?
- What Holds The Nucleus Together?
- 9 Nomenclature Conventions To Know