Aldehydes and Ketones

By James Ashenhurst

Wittig Reaction

Last updated: October 19th, 2022 |

The Wittig Reaction: A Useful Method For Converting Aldehydes and Ketones To Alkenes

Some time ago, we learned how to turn alkenes into carbonyls via ozonolysis.

But we haven’t yet learned how to go in the opposite direction – from carbonyls to alkenes.

It’s useful to think of functional groups like airports, and reactions as being like flights between cities. In any reaction map you care to draw, carbonyls and alkenes are big hubs. So only knowing how to go from carbonyls to alkenes is a bit like being able to book a one-way flight from New York to Chicago… but not a return!

Let’s address this important gap in our synthetic toolbox.

summary of wittig reaction for making alkenes from ylides and aldehydes or ketones

Table of Contents

  1. The Wittig Reaction
  2. The Mechanism of the Wittig Reaction
  3. How Are Ylides Made? A Quick Primer
  4. Some Examples Of The Wittig Reaction
  5. Summary: The Wittig Reaction
  6. (Advanced) When Stereochemistry Rears Its Ugly Head
  7. Notes
  8. Quiz Yourself!
  9. References And Further Reading

1. The Wittig Reaction

Below is a useful reaction called the Wittig reaction that achieves this transformation.  It won its inventor, Georg Wittig, the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (along with the father of hydroboration, H.C. Brown).

what is the wittig reaction - summary - formation of alkenes from ketones and aldehydes with phosphorus ylides

The two components of this reaction are:

  • a carbonyl compound (aldehydes and ketones both work,  but not esters or amides)
  • a rather strange-looking species known as an ylide. (specifically, a “phosphonium ylide”, because there are also ylides of nitrogen and sulfur).

The technical definition of an ylide is a species with opposite formal charges on adjacent atoms. Although we drew the ylide, above, with a double bond between C and P, it also has an important resonance form with a  positive charge on phosphorus and a negative charge on carbon:

what is an ylide - opposite charges on adjacent atoms

The carbon of this ylide therefore behaves in many ways as a carbanion, and can readily act as a nucleophile.

2. The Mechanism of the Wittig Reaction

If you look above to the bonds that form and break in the Wittig reaction, you’ll see that it essentially swaps C=P and C=O bonds for C=C and O=P bonds.

So how does it work?

The version of events described in most introductory textbooks follows below.Note 1, describes a slightly modified account of the mechanism that is generally more accurate. ]

We’ve already seen many examples of how carbonyl carbons are excellent electrophiles.  reacting with nucleophiles such as Grignard reagents, metal hydrides, organolithiums and many other species. [e.g. The Simple 2-Step Pattern For 7 Reactions of Aldehydes and Ketones]

So one can imagine the first step of the Wittig reaction as being the attack of the nucleophilic ylide carbon on the electrophilic carbonyl carbon, providing a species with a negative charge on oxygen and a positive charge on phosphorus.  This is the classic “addition” (sometimes called “1,2-addition”) mechanism to carbonyls.

The second step of the Wittig, then, is the attack of the resulting oxygen at phosphorus, giving a 4-membered ring. [Cocktail-party worthy fun fact: this is called an oxaphosphetane ]

The 4-membered ring is very short-lived and quickly breaks down, via a process called a reverse [2+2] cycloaddition, to give the final products: a phosphine oxide (“triphenylphosphine oxide” in this case), and the new alkene.

mechanism of ylide reaction attack of ylide on carbonyl attack of oxygen on phosphorus reverse cycloaddition

[In many cases, step 1 and step 2 essentially happen simultaneously, but this mechanism is fine for our purposes. ]

Although the example above is fairly simple, the Wittig reaction can be readily extended to more complex reaction partners, as we’ll see below. Before we dive into that, though, it might be worth a few moments for a brief digression.

3. How Are Ylides Made? A Quick Primer

Ylides might look a little exotic, but their synthesis is actually quite straightforward and involves no unfamiliar chemistry. They are usually made through just two familiar reactions: nucleophilic substitution reaction (SN2) followed by an acid-base reaction.

We start by treating an alkyl halide (another functional group “hub” in our airport analogy) with the excellent nucleophile triphenylphosphine (PPh3), which displaces the leaving group (via SN2) to give a phosphonium salt.

[When planning a Wittig, it’s generally best to use a primary alkyl halide (or alkyl sulfonate) here, as secondary alkyl halides don’t work as well. ]

formation of ylide mechanism step 1 sn2 reaction between pph3 and alkyl bromide

The C-H bond adjacent to the phosphorus is relatively acidic [Note 2] and can be deprotonated with strong base to give the ylide shown. A common base to use is the readily available n-butyllithium (n-BuLi ). Sodium amide (NaNH2) can also be used.

formation of ylide mechanism step 2 deprotonation of phosphonium with strong base butyllithium

[Note 3 on the pKa of the C-H bond]

The resulting ylide is then ready to go.  No need to isolate it –  just add an aldehyde or ketone, and the reaction should proceed nicely.

4. Some Examples Of The Wittig Reaction

For example, here’s the above ylide in a Wittig reaction with cyclohexanone:

example of the wittig reaction cyclohexanone

The Wittig can be used to convert a wide variety of ketones and aldehydes to alkenes.

To see more examples, hover here or click this link.

It can even be used to form rings. Here, we form a double bond between C-1 and C-6:

example of an intramolecular wittig reaction forming a new ring

To see the mechanism of this reaction drawn out,   hover here for a pop-up image or open an image link here .

5. Summary: The Wittig Reaction 

In summary, the Wittig is a very important reaction for several reasons:

  1. it’s a carbon-carbon bond forming reaction, which allows for extension of the carbon chain
  2. the components (carbonyls and ylides) are readily available and/or easily synthesized from readily available precursors
  3. the resulting alkenes can be further transformed into a large variety of functional groups – too many to list here, but for some inspiration, check out this reaction map of alkenes.

Here’s a quick example in synthesis: extending the carbon chain and incorporating an alcohol at the end, via hydroboration.

example of wittig reaction in a simple synthesis of an alcohol

For many students,  that’s all you need to know about the Wittig for now. For those insatiably curious about what can go wrong when we move beyond some simple examples… read on.

6. (Advanced) When Stereochemistry Rears Its Ugly Head

The examples above rigorously avoided any situation where a mixture of E and Z alkenes could be obtained.

What happens when we try to combine an aldehyde (or unsymmetrical ketone) with an unsymmetrical ylide?

We won’t wade too deeply into the topic of stereochemistry here, but for your average aldehyde reacting with your average ylide prepared by the methods above, the major alkene stereoisomer tends to be Z. [Note 4]

stereochemistry of the wittig reaction favors z over e

The ratio of the Z isomer decreases as electron-withdrawing groups are added to the ylide. These species are called, “stabilized ylides”, as they are less basic (and less reactive).

stabilized ylides with electron withdrawing groups tend to give e products over z

This is simple enough and probably enough for most purposes.  We don’t have time here to get into the excellent Horner-Emmons-Wadsworth reaction, which bears many similarities to the Wittig, and provides excellent E:Z selectivity.

For an excellent set of notes on some of the more advanced facets of the Wittig and related reactions, see these handouts from Andrew Myers’ advanced organic chemistry course (CHEM 215) at Harvard.


Note 1. We’ve shown the mechanism occurring in a stepwise process, but a detailed study of the Wittig mechanism [see here] strongly suggests that it mainly through a [2+2] cycloaddition followed by a reverse [2+2] cycloaddition.

That is not nearly as complicated as it sounds. Following the central figures in this square dance will give you the main idea:


[adapted from the original on youtube: also invoked to to explain the Chauvin mechanism of olefin metathesis]

Here’s what it looks like. Note that instead of an initial addition step (leading to a betaine intermediate), the four-membered ring is just formed directly.  The second step (reverse [2+2] cycloaddition) is the same.

wittig mechanism showing 2+2 cycloaddition followed by 2+2 cycloreversion

Note 2. Called a “betaine”.

Note 3. The Evans pKa table gives a pKa for Ph3P–CH3 of 22 (in DMSO), making it more acidic than a terminal alkyne. Note that PPh3 is a good choice because it doesn’t have any potentially acidic carbons adjacent to the phosphorus. If we used P(CH3)3 as the nucleophile, for example, then using n-BuLi could lead to a mixture of of ylides in many cases. We don’t want that! [Nor, for most purposes, do we want P(CH3)3, which is among the more foul-smelling and toxic liquids you will ever encounter in a chemistry lab, but I digress…. ]

Note 4. Very interesting to note that the identity of the base matters greatly: using a lithium base, such as n-BuLi, (and added lithium iodide) results in a mixture of products with a Z:E ratio of 58:42 , whereas sodium bases give more of the Z. In the presence of added lithium salts, it’s likely true that a betaine intermediate is present, and there is more equilibration between the starting materials and the intermediate oxaphosphetane.

Quiz Yourself!

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(Advanced) References And Further Reading

  1. Über Triphenyl‐phosphin‐methylene als olefinbildende Reagenzien (I. Mitteil.
    Georg Wittig, Ulrich Schöllkopf Ber. 1954 87 (9), 13318
    DOI: 10.1002/cber.19540870919
  2. Über Triphenyl‐phosphinmethylene als olefinbildende Reagenzien (II. Mitteil.1))
    Georg Wittig, Werner Haag Ber.1955, 88 (11), 1654
    DOI: 10.1002/cber.19550881110
    The first two papers by Nobel Laureate Prof. Georg Wittig on a new olefination reaction based on phosphonium ylides.
  3. From Diyls to Ylides to My Idyll
    Georg Wittig Science 1980, 210 (4470), 600
    DOI: 1126/science.210.4470.600
    Prof. Wittig’s Nobel Lecture, in which he talks about how he first discovered phosphonium ylides on accident while trying to synthesize pentavalent nitrogen compounds, as well as the origin of the term ‘ylide’.
    George Wittig and U. Schoellkopf
    Org. Synth. 1960, 40, 66
    DOI: 10.15227/orgsyn.040.0066
    Reproducible and tested procedure for methylidenation with phosphonium ylides reported by Nobel Laureate Prof. G. Wittig.
  5. Unusual solvent effects in the Wittig reaction of some ketones indicating initial one-electron transfer
    George A. Olah and V. V. Krishnamurthy
    Journal of the American Chemical Society 1982, 104 (14), 3987-3990
    DOI: 1021/ja00378a035
    This paper, unusually from Nobel Laureate Prof. George Olah, shows that single-electron transfer reduction can take place when reacting sterically hindered ketones (e.g. 2-adamantanone) with bulky phosphonium ylides.
  6. Reactivity and Selectivity in the Wittig Reaction:  A Computational Study
    Raphaël Robiette, Jeffery Richardson, Varinder K. Aggarwal, and, and Jeremy N. Harvey
    Journal of the American Chemical Society 2006 128 (7), 2394-2409
    DOI: 1021/ja056650q
    A computational investigation of the Wittig reaction that attempts to explain the stereochemistry of the products (unstabilized ylides yield Z-alkenes and stabilized ylides give E-alkenes).
  7. Acidity of phosphonium ylides.
    Xian Man Zhang, and Frederick G. Bordwell

    J. Am. Chem. Soc.1994116 (3), pp 968–972 .
    DOI: 10.1021/ja00082a018


Comment section

20 thoughts on “Wittig Reaction

  1. Hi ! I am confused by the quiz about the acetal protecting group, so the H3O+ only removed the mask of aldehyde group? Would the H3O+ do the acid catalyzed hydration on the alkenes outside the benzene or they are stable because of the conjugation with benzene so they won’t react with H3O+? Thanks

    1. Yes, the acetal is fairly easily removed by aqueous acid. I realize when you’re learning organic chemistry, textbooks can be fairly careless about H3O+. It can be used for hydration of alkenes, hydrolysis of acetals, or simple workup of a basic solution (e.g. Grignard reaction), but you’re not really given any gauge on the relative reactivity of any of these processes.

      In practice it takes a pretty concentrated acid to hydrate the alkene, whereas a dimethyl acetal is readily hydrolyzed with H3O+. I suppose for a situation like this it might make it better to say, “mild acid?”. If it were “concentrated H2SO4, H2O” then I would see hydration as a significant process.

  2. Hi, love the explanations but would’ve been a tad nice to see the mechanism of the intramolecular wittig reaction:) Tried it out anyways, but can’t really check if it’s right – have tried google, but yeah, just wasn’t sure in what order the bromid would fall off and such.

    1. Ylides don’t undergo Wittig-style reactions with esters. If anything happens at all, it would be addition-elimination. If you want a Wittig-style olefination of an ester, you could use something like the Tebbe reagent.

  3. James I’ve got a question,

    Could you use the Wittig reagent to attack a metal-oxo bond and replace the oxygen with a carbene?

    1. That’s a good question. I usually see the other way around – a carbene reacting with a heteroatom to give an ylide.
      There might be a pathway there. It would be a good research project.

  4. Hello!
    I was wondering how electron withdrawing groups, sterics, and aldehyde/ketone on a benzene ring affect the rate of a Wittig reaction. For example, if you have a benzene ring with an aldehyde and nitro group in para positions versus a benzene ring with a methyl ketone and two nitro groups in the ortho and para positions, which do you think would react faster in a Wittig reaction with Ph3P=CH2?

    1. Hard to predict your specific example since you’re changing multiple interlinked variables. Aldehydes are more reactive than ketones, and electron-poor carbonyls (such as aromatic aldehydes with p-nitro groups) are more reactive than electron-rich carbonyls.

  5. Hi James,

    I’ve performed the Wittig reaction a few times in the lab and I’ve used potassium tert-butoxide as a base. This is interesting considering the pKa of PPh3PCH3 is around 35 while the pka of the conjugate acid of potassium tert-butoxide is around 17 which is obviously significantly weaker. Any explanation on how the reaction still works (note I’ve always gotten a decent yield of around 75-80% and the reaction has proceeded in around 1-2 hours)?

  6. Hi! I had a question regarding the formation of the ylide. The PPh3 group appears to be very sterically hindered due to the presence of 3 benzene rings attached to the central phosphorus. Does that have any effect on the initial SN2 step?


    1. Good question. Definitely not an issue with primary alkyl halides. It helps that the C-P bond is relatively long. 1.84 A. Can be complicated with secondary alkyl halides. The main issue is that you’re going to get crappy E/Z selectivity in the resulting alkene. One situation where it’s been OK is on the position adjacent to a carbonyl.

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