Alcohols, Epoxides and Ethers

By James Ashenhurst

Alcohol Oxidation: “Strong” and “Weak” Oxidants

Last updated: November 10th, 2022 |

Simplifying Alcohol Oxidation: “Strong” Oxidants and “Weak”   Oxidants

Here’s what we’ll talk about today: reagents for the oxidation of alcohols.

For the purposes of introductory organic chemistry,  it’s helpful to break oxidants for alcohols into two categories: “weak” and “strong“.

  • Weak” oxidants such as pyridinium chlorochromate (PCC), Dess-Martin Periodinane (DMP), and the Swern will only oxidize primary alcohols to aldehydes.
  • Strong” oxidants such as chromic acid (H2CrO4) and KMnO4 will oxidize  primary alcohols to carboxylic acids.

oxidation of alcohols break summary strong and weak oxidants chromic acid h2cro4

Table of Contents

  1. An Oxidation Reaction Forms C-O and Breaks C-H On The Same  Carbon
  2. Another Oxidation: Secondary  Alcohols To Ketones
  3. Oxidation  of Primary  Alcohols To Carboxylic Acids
  4. Tertiary  Alcohols Do Not Undergo Oxidation
  5. Climbing The Oxidation Ladder, One or Two Rungs At A Time
  6. “Weak” Oxidants Oxidize Primary Alcohols To Aldehydes – And Stop There
  7. “Strong” Oxidants Oxidize Primary Alcohols  To Carboxylic Acids
  8. Summary: “Strong” and “Weak” Oxidants for Alcohol Oxidation
  9. Notes
  10. Quiz Yourself!
  11. (Advanced) References and Further Reading

1. An Oxidation Reaction Forms C–O and Breaks C–H On the Same Carbon

Here we are, at least  fifteen articles into this series on alcohols, and all we’ve really talked about is substitution and elimination reactions, with a little bit of acid-base chemistry mixed in.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of one of the most important classes of reaction for alcohols – one that becomes crucial as you move into Org 2.

I’m talking about oxidation reactions.

What do I mean by an “oxidation reaction”, anyway?

Let’s start by examining the bonds that form and the bonds that break in this process, where we convert a primary alcohol to an aldehyde:

transformation of primary alcohol to aldehyde using a weak oxidant no over oxidation

No, “Eye of newt” doesn’t actually do oxidation reactions; a specific example of an oxidant here could be PCC, DMP, or Swern oxidation. The point here is not to focus on the specific reagent but to pay attention to the bonds that form and break in this reaction.

The key process here is that we’re forming a C-O bond and breaking a C-H bond on the same carbon. That’s a sure sign of an oxidation reaction. For more background on oxidation reactions in organic chemistry, check out this previous post Quick summary: compare oxidation states in carbon to those in transition metals. Essentially we’re trading a bond between carbon and an atom less electronegative than carbon (H) for one more electronegative than carbon (O). If you think back to Gen Chem and transition metal oxidation states, this would correspond to an increase in oxidation state].

2. Another Oxidation: Secondary Alcohols To Ketones

Here’s another example for you. Starting with a secondary alcohol, we throw in some “wing of bat”, and voila!  We end up with a ketone!

oxidation of secondary alcohol to ketone using strong or weak oxidant oxidation break ch form co on same carbon


Again, we’re breaking C-H and forming C-O here. By the way, that [O] is shorthand you’ll see occasionally: it just means, “oxidation”.

3.  Oxidation of Primary Alcohols To Carboxylic Acids

Now let’s look at this third reaction, where we break out some very precious “powdered unicorn horn”.

oxidation of primary alcohols to carboxylic acids using strong oxidant

That powdered  unicorn horn is powerful stuff! When we count the bonds formed and broken, notice that we formed two new C-O bonds and broke two C-H bonds. In other words, using this one reagent resulted in two oxidations at the same carbon!

Note, however, that our magic unicorn horn only performs one oxidation on secondary alcohols, giving us a ketone (just like, the previously described “wing of bat”)

oxidation of secondary alcohol to ketone with strong oxidant ends up at ketone stage

4. Tertiary Alcohols Do Not Undergo Oxidation

Finally, just so tertiary alcohols aren’t left out, let’s see what happens when they’re treated with any one of our magical reagents.

no matter what the oxidant tertiary alcohols are not oxidized with either strong or weak oxidants

Nothing! Eye of newt, wing of bat, powdered unicorn horn – no matter how powerful, none of them are able to oxidize our tertiary alcohol.

Why is that?  If you look closely, there’s no C-H on the carbon of the tertiary alcohol and no oxidation occurs. We would have to break a C-C bond in order for an oxidation to occur, and none of these reagents are competent to do this [for a clue as to why, see the next post]

[BTW: that carbon of an alcohol attached directly to C-OH is sometimes called the “carbinol” carbon]

5. Climbing The Oxidation Ladder, One Or Two Rungs At A Time

Let’s organize all of these reactions into a table. In one of the most powerful analogies in organic chemistry, imagine we have a “ladder” of oxidation states for carbon. Alcohol is at the bottom of our miniature ladder here, and each oxidation goes a step up [we say “oxidize up” because we’re increasing the oxidation state, i.e. making it more positive].

simple oxidation ladder showing increase in oxidation state going from primary alcohol to aldehyde to carboxylic acid and secondary alcohol to ketone but no transition to ester

One step “up” from a primary alcohol is an aldehyde, which we showed in example 1.

Two steps “up” from a primary alcohol [and one step up from an aldehyde] is a carboxylic acid, which we showed in example 3.

One step “up” from a secondary alcohol is a ketone, which we showed in example 2 and also with a “stronger” oxidant in example 3.

And in example 4 we showed that oxidation “up” from a tertiary alcohol isn’t possible even with the help of these “magical” reagents we’ve been using.

By the way, shouldn’t there also be a step “up” from a ketone? Yes – it would be an ester [shown in grey]. But none of the reagents we’ll talk about here are capable of climbing this rung of the ladder [again, it would involve breaking a C-C bond].  Later on, you might learn about a special way to do it [See post: Baeyer-Villiger Reaction] which we’ll discuss when we go through reactions of ketones.

6. “Weak” Oxidants Oxidize Primary Alcohols To Aldehydes, and Stop There

Now we’re going to stop being so silly and get to specific reagents instead of talking about “eye of newt”, “wing of bat”, and “powdered unicorn horn”.

But first, here’s a useful distinction to make in keeping track of oxidizing agents.

“Weak” Oxidants

Some oxidants will react with primary alcohols to give aldehydes, and stop there. Let’s call these “weak” oxidants. 

They don’t go on to the next “rung” up i.e. carboxylic acids.

It’s a bit of an oversimplification [Note 1] but it will do for our purposes.

Examples of this are pyridinium chlorochromate (PCC), Dess-Martin Periodinane (DMP), the Swern oxidation [(COCl)2, DMSO, NEt3)] and CrO3/pyridine (the “Collins reagent“) all shown below. There are many, many more oxidants that will do this transformation than those I just mentioned; these are merely the reagents encountered most often in undergraduate courses.

various reagents for oxidation of primary alcohols to aldehydes that will also oxidize secondary alcohols to ketones include pcc

As mentioned, these oxidizing agents will also convert secondary alcohols to ketones.

7. “Strong” Oxidants Oxidize Primary  Alcohols  To Carboxylic Acids

A second class of oxidants are more vigorous. They will convert primary alcohols to carboxylic acids [two steps “up”] in one flask.

Let’s call these strong oxidants. They fall into two general categories: potassium permanganate  (KMnO4) and Cr(VI) species, which are essentially different precursors of chromic acid (H2CrO4).

[I’ve written before that H2CrO4  is one of the most annoying reagents in organic chemistry, because it has so many potential precursors spread throughout different textbooks. K2Cr2O7, Na2Cr2O7, Na2CrO4, K2CrO4, CrO3/H3O+, Jones reagent – they’re all essentially the same thing, at least for our purposes. ]

They will also oxidize secondary alcohols to ketones (and stop there).

strong oxidants convert primary alcohols to carboxylic acids include kmno4 h2cro4 chromic acid potassium permanganate

And like I said earlier, neither strong nor weak oxidants will oxidize tertiary alcohols.

8. Summary: Strong and  Weak Oxidants for Alcohol Oxidation

Let’s make a table, shall we? This is the “bottom line” for this post.

summary to get aldehyde from primary alcohol use weak oxidant pcc dmp swern

  • “Weak” oxidants convert primary alcohols to aldehydes and stop there. They also oxidize secondary alcohols to ketones.
  • “Strong” oxidants convert primary alcohols to carboxylic acids. They also oxidize secondary alcohols to ketones.
  • None of the reagents we’ve encountered will oxidize tertiary alcohols.

Next time – How Oxidation Reactions Work

So how do these mysterious reagents work, anyway?

Reagents for oxidation of alcohols was one of those things that made me feel really dumb when I learned organic chemistry.

 The reagents that were given to us might have well been “eye of newt” and “powdered unicorn horn” since they were introduced without any background or context and disappeared just as quickly after the section on oxidation was over.

It was only later that I understood that oxidation is not nearly as complicated as these weird reagents make it  seem. In fact, the underlying process is in most cases extremely familiar – it’s just not taught that way!

In the next post, we’ll discuss the common – and very familiar! – mechanistic step that (almost) all oxidation reactions you’ll learn have in common. Not only will oxidation reactions then become less mysterious.

Next Post – Demystifying The Mechanisms of Alcohol Oxidations


Note 1. It’s an oversimplification because the first step in oxidation of an aldehyde is generally addition of water to form a hydrate, which is then oxidized to the carboxylic acid. Some oxidants we call “weak” (e.g. CrO3, pyridine) can thus be “strong” if water is present. It’s a teaching kludge, but good enough for our purposes, for now.

Quiz Yourself!

Click to Flip

Click to Flip

(Advanced) References and Further Reading

Oxidation of secondary alcohols (‘weak’ oxidation):

  1. Readily accessible 12-I-5 oxidant for the conversion of primary and secondary alcohols to aldehydes and ketones
    D. B. Dess and J. C. Martin
    The Journal of Organic Chemistry 1983, 48 (22), 4155-4156
  2. A useful 12-I-5 triacetoxyperiodinane (the Dess-Martin periodinane) for the selective oxidation of primary or secondary alcohols and a variety of related 12-I-5 species
    Daniel B. Dess and J. C. Martin
    Journal of the American Chemical Society 1991, 113 (19), 7277-7287
    These two articles are on the development and use of the compound now known as “Dess-Martin periodinane”, a hypervalent I(V) compound that has found widespread use as a mild oxidant in organic synthesis. Prof. J. C. Martin spent most of his career at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and ended his career at Vanderbilt University. During his career he contributed a lot towards our understanding of hypervalent main-group chemistry, preparing many S(IV), S(VI), Br(III), I(III), I(V), and I(VII) compounds, among others.
  3. Oxidation of alcohols by “activated” dimethyl sulfoxide. A preparative, steric and mechanistic study
    Omura, K.; Swern, D.
    Tetrahedron 1978, 34 (11): 1651–1660
  4. Structure of the dimethyl sulfoxide-oxalyl chloride reaction product. Oxidation of heteroaromatic and diverse alcohols to carbonyl compounds
    Mancuso, A. J.; Brownfain, D. S.; Swern, D.
    Org. Chem. 1979, 44 (23): 4148–4150
  5. Oxidation of long-chain and related alcohols to carbonyls by dimethyl sulfoxide “activated” by oxalyl chloride
    Mancuso, A. J.; Huang, S.-L.; Swern, D.
    J. Org. Chem. 1978, 43 (12): 2480–2482
  6. Mechanisms of dimethylsulfoxide oxidations
    Kurt Torssell
    Tetrahedron Letters 1966 7 (37), 4445-4451
    These papers are on what is now commonly called the “Swern oxidation” after its developer, Daniel Swern. This method is rather mild and uses DMSO, a common solvent, as the oxidant. However, this also results in the formation of dimethyl sulfide (which is notoriously stinky) as the product of the reaction, one of its noteworthy characteristics.
    Alessandro Dondoni and Daniela Perrone
    Org. Synth. 2000, 77, 64
    DOI: 10.15227/orgsyn.077.0064
    The final step (4 -> 5) in this multistep procedure is a Swern oxidation. This is from Organic Syntheses, a source of reliable, independently tested synthetic organic procedures.
  8. New and highly effective method for the oxidation of primary and secondary alcohols to carbonyl compounds
    E. J. Corey; C. U. Kim
    Journal of the American Chemical Society 1972, 94 (21): 7586–7587
  9. A method for the oxidation of sec,tert-1,2-diols to α-hydroxy ketones without carbon-carbon cleavage
    E. J. Corey; C. U. Kim
    Tetrahedron Letters 1974, 15 (3): 287–290
    These papers by Nobel Laureate Prof. E. J. Corey (Harvard) are on the development of what is now known as the “Corey-Kim” oxidation. This is very similar to the Swern oxidation in that DMSO is used as the oxidant, except that here NCS (N-chlorosuccinimide) is used instead of oxalyl chloride. The advantage with this procedure is that temperatures above –25 °C can be used, and the disadvantage is that substrates susceptible to chlorination by NCS cannot be used.
  10. A New and Selective Oxidation of Alcohols
    Pfitzner, K. E.; Moffatt, J. G.
    J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1963, 85: 3027
    This paper describes yet another DMSO-based oxidation, the Pfitzner-Moffatt oxidation, which is not used that much anymore due to the difficulties in separating out the dicyclohexylurea byproduct from the desired product.
    R. V. Oppenauer
    Recl. Trav. Chim. Pays-Bas 56 (2): 137–144
    DOI: 10.1002/recl.19370560206
    This paper lays the basis for what is now called the Oppenauer oxidation, the oxidation of secondary alcohols to ketones using Al(i-PrO)3 in excess acetone.
  12. Oxidations with Manganese Dioxide
    E. P. Papadopoulos, A. Jarrar, and C. H. Issidorides
    The Journal of Organic Chemistry 1966, 31 (2), 615-616
    DOI: 10.1021/jo01340a520
    As this paper shows, MnO2 can also be used for oxidation of secondary alcohols.Oxidation with PCC (pydinium chlorochromate):
  13. Pyridinium chlorochromate. An efficient reagent for oxidation of primary and secondary alcohols to carbonyl compounds
    E. J. Corey, J. William Suggs
    Tetrahedron Letters Volume 16, Issue 31, 1975, Pages 2647-2650
    The original paper by Nobel Laureate Prof. E. J. Corey on the use of pyridinium chlorochromate as a mild oxidation reagent in organic synthesis.
  14. The story of the discovery of PCC was rather serendipitous, as explained by Prof. Suggs in this blog post:
  15. Pyridinium Chlorochromate: A Versatile Oxidant in Organic Synthesis
    Piancatelli, A. Scettri, M. D’Auria
    Synthesis 1982; 1982(4): 245-258
    Review on the applications of PCC in organic synthesis. Includes a discussion on the mechanism.
  16. Kinetics and Mechanism of the Oxidation of Alcohols by Pyridinium Chlorochromate
    Banerji Kalyan K.
    Chem. Soc. Jpn. 1978, 51 (9), 2732
    DOI: 10.1246/bcsj.51.2732
    A nice mechanistic study of PCC oxidation, and includes a probable mechanism of the reaction.
  17. Stoichiometry of the oxidation of primary alcohols with pyridinium chlorochromate. Evidence for a two-electron change
    Herbert C. Brown, C. Gundu Rao, and Surendra U. Kulkarni
    The Journal of Organic Chemistry 1979 44 (15), 2809-2810
    DOI: 1021/jo01329a051
    In this paper, Nobel Laureate H. C. Brown proves that PCC oxidations involve a transfer of 2 electrons from the Cr to the substrate. Therefore, one does not need to use an excess of PCC – 1 equivalent works fine.
    Yong Tu, Michael Frohn, Zhi-Xian Wang, and Yian Shi
    Org. Synth. 2003 80, 1
    This tested procedure from Organic Syntheses uses PCC to make the chiral ketone catalyst for asymmetric epoxidation, known as ‘Shi epoxidation’ after its creator, Prof. Yian Shi (Colorado State).Oxidation of primary alcohols to carboxylic acids (‘strong’ oxidation):
  19. Synthesis of a model depsipeptide segment of Luzopeptins (BBM 928), potent antitumor and antiretroviral antibiotics
    Marco A. Ciufolini and Shankar Swaminathan
    Tetrahedron Letters Volume 30, Issue 23, 1989, Pages 3027-3028
    Step f in the synthesis (Scheme 1) is an oxidation of a primary alcohol to carboxylic acid using KMnO4.
  20. Stereocontrolled addition to a penaldic acid equivalent: an asymmetric of -β-hydroxy-L-glutamic acid
    Philip Garner
    Tetrahedron Letters Volume 25, Issue 51, 1984, 5855-5858
    : 10.1016/S0040-4039(01)81703-2
    The final step (g, 6 -> 7) in the synthesis in this paper is an oxidation of a primary alcohol to a carboxylic acid using KMnO4.The Jones oxidation, which uses chromic acid (CrO3 in H2SO4) is a common method for the oxidation of primary alcohols to carboxylic acids. The drawback is of course the production of stoichiometric amounts of chromium waste.
  21. Researches on acetylenic compounds. Part XIV. A study of the reactions of the readily available ethynyl-ethylenic alchohol, pent-2-en-4-yn-1-ol
    Sir Ian Heilbron, E. R. H. Jones and F. Sondheimer
    J. Chem. Soc., 1947, 1586-1590
  22. An Improved Procedure for the Oxidation of Alkynols to Alkynoic Acids
    B. C. Holland and N. W. Gilman
    Synth. Commun. 1974, 4, 203-210
    DOI: 10.1080/00397917408062073
  23. Useful procedures for the oxidation of alcohols involving pyridinium dichromate in aprotic media
    E. J. Corey, Greg Schmidt
    Tetrahedron Letters Volume 20, Issue 5, 1979, 399-402
    DOI: 10.1016/S0040-4039(01)93515-4
    Nobel Laureate Prof. E. J. Corey (Harvard) shows that PDC (pyridinium dichromate) in DMF can be used for the oxidation of primary alcohols to carboxylic acids.
  24. Applications of the peracid-mediated oxidation of alcohols
    James A. Cella, James P. McGrath, James A. Kelley, Omaya El Soukkary, and Lawrence Hilpert
    The Journal of Organic Chemistry 1977, 42 (12), 2077-2080
    : 10.1021/jo00432a008
    This paper demonstrates that a peracid (mCPBA) can directly oxidize secondary alcohols to esters, a tandem oxidation-Baeyer-Villiger reaction.


Comment section

9 thoughts on “Alcohol Oxidation: “Strong” and “Weak” Oxidants

  1. Is there any benefit in using a strong oxidant over a weak one when converting a secondary alcohol to a ketone? TA’s answer key had PCC crossed out in favor of KMnO4

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