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Last updated date: 23rd May 2024
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What is Solvolysis Reaction?

There are numerous reactions involved in chemistry, one of the most commonly used reactions is solvolysis. Let us discuss in detail, what is a solvolysis reaction? A nucleophilic substitution or elimination reaction is solvolysis. The nucleophile in this reaction is a solvent molecule. Solvolysis of a chiral reactant yields the racemate, which is typical of SN1 reactions. Intimate ion pairs, in which the leaving anion remains near to the carbocation, effectively shielding it from attack by the nucleophile, may complicate the stereochemical path. Neighbor group involvement may result in particularly quick reactions, with nonclassical ions acting as intermediates or transition states.

Classification of Solvolysis

Solvolysis reactions are classified for specific nucleophiles. Hydrolysis is a form of solvolysis that involves water. Alcoholysis (alcohols) and, more precisely, methanolysis (methanol), acetolysis, ammonolysis (ammonia), and aminolysis are concepts that are related (alkyl amines). Glycolysis, on the other hand, is an older term for the multistep process of converting glucose to pyruvate.

Common Examples of Solvolysis


Although solvolysis is most commonly associated with organic chemistry, hydrolysis occurs in inorganic chemistry when metal ion aqua complexes react with solvent molecules due to the Lewis acidity of the metalcore. Aqueous aluminum chloride solutions, for example, are acidic since the aqua-aluminum complex loses protons to water molecules, resulting in hydronium ions, which reduces the pH.

Hydrolysis reactions in organic chemistry often yield two fragments from an initial substrate. Amide hydrolysis yields carboxylic acids and amines, while ester hydrolysis yields alcohols and carboxylic acids.


The reaction of a triglyceride with simple alcohol such as methanol or ethanol to produce the fatty acid's methyl or ethyl esters, as well as glycerol, is an example of solvolysis. Because of the exchange of alcohol fragments, this reaction is more generally known as a transesterification reaction.


Ammonolysis is a term that refers to ammonia solvolysis, but it may also refer to ammonia's nucleophilic assault in general. Since ammonia boils at 33 degrees Celsius, it is rarely used as a solvent in its pure state. However, it is easily miscible with water and is often used as a saturated aqueous solution. As a result, ammonolysis can be thought of as a subset of solvolysis, since the ammonia is dissolved in a solvent. Despite this, since ammonia has a higher nucleophilicity than water, the reactions are normally very selective.

Hydrolysis of Alkyl Halides (Tertiary and Secondary Haloalkanes)

Hydrolysis of alkyl halides is a nucleophilic substitution reaction by a solvolysis mechanism. The nucleophile, solvent, and leaving group all impact SN1 (Unimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution) reactions, just as they do with nucleophilic substitution reaction two (SN2). The hydrogen atom is strongly polarised in polar protic solvents since it is bound to an electronegative atom. A dipole moment exists in polar aprotic solvents, but their hydrogen is not strongly polarised. Since certain polar aprotic solvents can react with the carbocation intermediate and produce an undesirable product, they are not used in SN1 reactions. Polar protic solvents are favored instead.

Since the hydrogen atom in a polar protic solvent is highly positively charged, it can interact with the anionic nucleophile in an SN2 reaction, but not in an SN1 reaction because the nucleophile is not a rate-determining phase. Since the broad dipole moment of the solvent helps to stabilize the transition state, polar protic solvents actually speed up the rate of the unimolecular substitution reaction. The substrate interacts with the highly positive and highly negative sections to lower the energy of the transition state. Since the carbocation is unstable, anything that can even slightly stabilize it will speed up the reaction.

The solvent can often serve as the nucleophile in an SN1 reaction. A solvolysis reaction is what this is called. The polarity of the solvent and its ability to stabilize the intermediate carbocation is critical for the solvolysis rate. The dielectric constant of a solvent approximates the polarity of the solvent. Non-polar materials have a dielectric constant of less than 15. The dielectric constant can be thought of as the tendency of a solvent to decrease its internal charge. For our purposes, the higher the dielectric constant, the more polar the material, and the faster the rate of SN1 reactions.

Mechanism of Solvolysis Reaction

In solvolysis reactions, generally, the solvent is a nucleophile. The solvolysis reaction of the SN1 type occurs in three steps. These steps are:

  • Formation of carbocation

  • Attack of nucleophile

  • Stable compound formation

Formation of Carbocation

The bond between carbon and bromine is a polar covalent bond. The cleavage of this bond allows the leaving group to be removed (bromide ion in the above-shown example). A carbocation intermediate is formed when the bromide ion leaves the tertiary butyl bromide. The SN1 solvolysis mechanism's rate-determining step is this one. It's important to remember that breaking the carbon-bromine bond is an endothermic reaction.

Attack of Nucleophile

The nucleophile attacks the carbocation in the second step of the SN1 reaction process. Since the solvent is neutral, a third step involving deprotonation is needed.

Stable Compound Formation

In the previous step, the positive charge on the carbocation was transferred to the oxygen. The water solvent now acts as a foundation, deprotonating the intermediate produced in the reaction to produce the desired alcohol as well as a hydronium ion as a product. As a result, the produced hydronium ion interacts with the bromide ion to produce hydrogen bromide as a component. This reaction's steps 2 and 3 are fast.

Nucleophilic Effect on Solvolysis

Since the nucleophile is not involved in the rate-determining step, the strength of the nucleophile has no effect on the reaction rate of the SN1 type of solvolysis reaction. When more than one nucleophile competes for a bond with the carbocation, the strengths and concentrations of those nucleophiles influence the distribution of products generated. When tertiary alkyl halide reacts with water and formic acid, where the water and formic acid are competing nucleophiles, two separate products are formed. The relative yields of these products are determined by the nucleophile concentrations and reactivities.

With a strong leaving group, an SN1 reaction accelerates. Since the leaving group is involved in the rate-determining step, this is the case. Since a successful leaving group needs to leave, the C-Leaving Group bond is broken faster. The carbocation is formed as the bond breaks, and the faster the carbocation is formed, the faster the nucleophile can enter and the reaction will be completed.

Since weak bases can carry the charge, a strong leaving group is a weak base. They're ready to go with all electrons, and the leaving group must be able to accept electrons in order to leave. Strong bases, on the other hand, donate electrons, making them ineffective as leaving groups. The ability to donate electrons decreases when you move from left to right on the periodic table, while the ability to be a strong leaving party increases. Halide is an example of a successful leaving community whose willingness to leave grows as you progress down the column.

In SN2 solvolysis reactions, the nucleophile is involved in the rate-determining process. As a result, stronger nucleophiles react more quickly. Nucleophilicity is said to be higher in stronger nucleophiles. While there are several exceptions to this pattern in solution, there is a connection between increased relative nucleophilicity and increased base strength in the gas phase. Nucleophilicity rises from right to left around the periodic table in general. Furthermore, an anion is a stronger nucleophile than a neutral species for different reagents of the same nucleophilic atom.

Difference Between SN1 Reaction and SN2 Reaction

The major differences between SN1 reaction and SN2 reaction are as follows:

  • The SN1 reaction is a unimolecular reaction whereas SN2 reactions are bimolecular reactions.

  • SN1 reactions follow the mechanism of 1st order kinetic whereas SN2 reaction follows the mechanism of 2nd order kinetics.

  • There are two steps involved in SN1 reactions whereas only a single step is involved in SN2 reactions.

  • The concentration of the substrate determines the rate of reaction of the SN1 mechanism whereas the concentration of the substrate as well as the nucleophile determines the rate of reaction of the SN2 mechanism.

  • A carbocation intermediate is formed in the SN1 reaction where SN2 reactions are a single transition step reaction.

Did You Know?

  • The dielectric constant of the substance or chemical affects the rate of solvolysis.

  • The rate of solvolysis depends on the stability of the intermediate formed in the reaction.

FAQs on Solvolysis

1. What is Solvolysis?

Solvolysis is a chemical reaction in which the solvent, such as water or alcohol, is one of the reagents and is present in much greater amounts than is needed. Substitution reactions are the most common form of solvolytic reaction. An atom or a group of atoms in a molecule is substituted by another atom or group of atoms in a reaction. The solvents displace an atom or group in the substrate molecule by acting as or producing electron-rich atoms or groups of atoms (nucleophiles). Some solvents act as eliminating agents, converting alkyl halides to alkenes at high temperatures or in the presence of strong bases. Solvolysis reactions are sometimes named after the reagent, such as "hydrolysis" when the reagent is water. For more information on the topic Download the Vedantu app or check out Vedantu’s website.

2. Give Some Examples of Solvolysis.

Some of the examples of solvolysis are hydrolysis, alcoholysis, and ammonolysis. A common example of solvolysis in alcoholysis is the transesterification reaction between a triglyceride and simple alcohol (for example, methanol or ethanol), to yield methyl or ethyl esters of the fatty acids along with glycerol. The use of solvolysis in the hydrolysis reaction is during the formation of carboxylic acids and amines due to the hydrolysis of amides and the production of alcohol and carboxylic acids due to the hydrolysis of esters. 

3. What are the effects of a nucleophile on solvolysis?

Since the nucleophile is not involved in the rate-determining step of the SN1 reaction, therefore, the strength of the nucleophile does not affect the SN1 reaction. However, if there is more than one nucleophile competing for the same bond to the carbocation, then in such a case, the strength of the nucleophiles determines which product will be formed at the end of the reaction whose yield will be dependent upon the relative reactivities and concentration of the nucleophile. If the leaving group is good, the rate of SN1 reaction increases because of its involvement in the rate-determining step. In simpler words, a good leaving group (a generally weak base) always wants to leave the bond and thus it leaves faster, leading to the formation of a carbocation. Once the carbocation is formed, the nucleophile can react with it, thereby completing the reaction. Weak bases are good leaving groups because in order to leave a group they need to accept electrons whereas strong bases can never be good leaving groups because in order to leave a bond they have to donate electrons. Therefore, as we move from left to right in a periodic table, the electron-donating ability of atoms decreases whereas the electron-accepting ability of the atoms increases.

4. Can the SN1 substitution reaction proceed with solvolysis?

Yes, the SN1 reaction can proceed with solvolysis. The SN1 reaction refers to a nucleophilic substitution reaction in which the rate-determining step is unimolecular. The SN1 reactions involve the formation of intermediates which are carbocation. The major steps involved in the SN1 reaction mechanism are illustrated below with respect to the example of tertiary butyl bromide.

  • The breaking of the carbon-bromine bond (endothermic reaction) facilitates the removal of bromide ions which is the leaving group in this case. The leaving of bromide ions forms a carbocation as an intermediate. This is the rate-determining step of the SN1 reaction that determines the rate at which the reaction will proceed further.

  • The carbocation formed earlier is then attacked by a nucleophile. Water being the solvent of the reaction, forms an oxonium ion as an intermediate and since the solvent has a neutral nature, the deprotonation step is necessary to conduct.

  • The positive charge that is present on the carbocation shifts to the oxygen. The water solvent acts as a base thereby deprotonating the oxonium ion. This yields the required alcohol and the hydronium ion as the end product of the reaction.

5. What is the effect of the solvent on the SN1 reaction (solvolysis)?

The solvent of the reaction plays a very vital role in the solvolysis and since SN1 reaction also proceeds with solvolysis, therefore, solvent plays an important role in the mechanism of SN1 reaction as well. A solvent can help in the formation of the intermediate of carbocation that will help in speeding up the reaction as it is involved in the rate-determining step of the SN1 reaction. The solvents that are generally preferred for SN1 reaction are both polar as well as protic. This is because the polar nature of the solvent stabilizes the ionic intermediates present in the reaction and the protic nature of the solvent helps the solvate in leaving the group. The most commonly used solvents in the SN1 reaction are generally water and alcohol and they also act as a nucleophile in the progress of the reaction.