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Williamson Ether Synthesis

Last updated date: 17th Apr 2024
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What is Williamson Synthesis?

The Williamson ether synthesis is an organic reaction in which an organohalide and deprotonated alcohol(alkoxide) are mixed to create an ether. Alexander Williamson invented this reaction in 1850. It normally involves an SN2 reaction between an alkoxide ion and a primary alkyl halide. This reaction is important in organic chemistry because it contributed to the discovery of the structure of ethers.

Williamson Ether Synthesis is typically achieved by combining a primary alkyl halide with an alkoxide ion in an SN2 reaction. This chemical reaction established the structure of ethers.

This reaction requires the SN2 pathway and is only useful when the alkyl halide is primary or secondary. These Ethers contain more carbon atoms than any of the starting materials, making them more complex structures. As a consequence, the reaction has a special place in organic chemistry's history. 

The following is the Williamson synthesis reaction:

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Williamson Ether Synthesis Mechanism

An SN2 bimolecular nucleophilic substitution mechanism is used in the Williamson ether reaction. A backside attack on an electrophile by a nucleophile occurs in an SN2 reaction mechanism, and it occurs in a concerted mechanism (happens all at once). A good leaving group that is strongly electronegative, such as a halide, is necessary for the SN2 reaction to occur.

An alkoxide ion (RO) serves as the nucleophile in the Williamson ether reaction, attacking the electrophilic carbon with the leaving group, which is usually an alkyl tosylate or an alkyl halide. Since secondary and tertiary leaving sites tend to proceed as an elimination reaction, the leaving site must be a primary carbon. Due to steric hindrance, this reaction does not support the formation of bulky ethers like di-tert butyl ether and instead favors the formation of alkenes.


  • The Williamson reaction has a wide range of applications, is commonly used in both laboratory and industrial synthesis, and is still the most straightforward and widely used method of preparing ethers. Williamson synthesis is used to prepare both symmetrical and asymmetrical ethers. Epoxides are generated by the intramolecular reaction of halohydrins in particular.

  • When it comes to unsymmetrical ethers, there are two options for reactant selection, and one is normally preferred based on availability or reactivity. The Williamson reaction is often widely used to produce an ether from two alcohols indirectly. After converting one of the alcohols to a leaving group (usually tosylate), the two are reacted together.

  • The Williamson reaction also uses two alcohols to create ethers. After one of them is transformed into a leaving group, the two respond together (to slylate).

  • The primary alkylating agent is favored, but the alkoxide may be primary, secondary, or tertiary. If the leaving group isn't a Halide, it's a sulfonate ester made specifically for the reaction.

Did You Know?

  • Since alkoxide ions are so reactive, they're typically prepared right before the reaction or produced on the spot. In situ generation is most commonly done in laboratory chemistry by using a carbonate base or potassium hydroxide, whereas phase transfer catalysis is very common in industrial syntheses. Although a wide variety of solvents can be used, protic and apolar solvents appear to significantly slow the reaction rate by reducing the supply of the free nucleophile. Because of this, acetonitrile and N, N-dimethylformamide is often used.

  • A typical Williamson reaction takes 1 to 8 hours to complete at 50 to 100 °C. It is always difficult to completely eliminate the starting material, and side effects are normal. In laboratory syntheses, yields of 50–95 percent are normal, while industrial procedures can achieve near-quantitative conversion.

  • In most laboratory syntheses, catalysis is not needed. However, if an unreactive alkylating agent is used (e.g., an alkyl chloride), a catalytic quantity of a soluble iodide salt may be added to significantly increase the rate of reaction (which undergoes halide exchange with the chloride to yield a much more reactive iodide, a variant of the Finkelstein reaction). Silver compounds, such as silver oxide, can be used in extreme situations.

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  • The Williamson reaction often competes with base-catalyzed alkylating agent elimination, and the nature of the leaving group, as well as reaction conditions (particularly temperature and solvent), may have a major impact on which is preferred. Some alkylating agent structures, in particular, maybe especially susceptible to removal.

  • The Williamson reaction will compete with alkylation on the ring when the nucleophile is an aryloxide ion since the aryloxide is an ambident nucleophile.

FAQs on Williamson Ether Synthesis

Question1: What are the Reagents used to Make Ether?

Alcohols or their conjugate bases are commonly used to make ether. The Williamson Ether Synthesis is a key procedure that involves an SN2 reaction between an alkoxide nucleophile and an alkyl halide.

Question2: Is it true that Ethers are Nucleophiles?

In a nucleophilic substitution reaction similar to that of alcohols, the heavy acids HI or HBr cleave alkyl ethers. The ethereal oxygen protonation produces a good leaving group, a neutral alcohol molecule. Nucleophiles include the halide ion, bromide, and iodide.

Question3: What is the ion Alkoxide?

RO-: Alkoxide (alkoxide ion): An ion bound to an sp3 carbon atom with a negative formal charge on the oxygen atom (often, but not always, part of an alkyl group). The alcohol's conjugate base.