Nucleophilic Substitution Reaction

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What is Nucleophilic Substitution Reaction?

Nucleophilic substitution reaction is a type of organic reaction where one nucleophile is replaced by others. It is quite the same as the displacement reactions that we find in chemistry. In a displacement reaction, a less reactive element gets replaced by a more reactive element from its salt solution. The group that takes electron pairs and displaces from the carbon is known as the leaving group, and the substitution takes place on a molecule known as substrate. The leaving group leaves as a neutral molecule.

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In nucleophilic substitution reactions, nucleophilicity is the term used for describing the reactivity and strength of nucleophiles. In a nucleophilic substitution reaction, a stronger nucleophile replaces a weaker nucleophile in its compound. It can be explained roughly as follows:

R - LG + Nu٥ →R - Nu + LG٥


R - Alkyl Group

LG - Leaving Group ( Less Nucleophilic)

Nu٥ - Strongly Nucleophilic


Consider a reaction of methyl bromide with sodium hydroxide, which gives sodium bromide as a side product with methanol as the main product.

CH3 - Br + OH¯ → CH3 - OH + Br¯

Methyl Bromide (Substrate) + Hydroxide ion (Nucleophile) → Methanol (Product) + Bromide ion


Nucleophilicity is the ability of the nucleophiles to donate their lone pairs to a positive center. It is a kinetic term that relates to the rate at which the nucleophile attacks the substrates (R - LG). The following factors are used to compare the nucleophilicity of different nucleophiles.

The Basic Strength of Nucleophiles

The basic strength of nucleophiles is the ability to donate electron pairs by a species. Both the terms basic strength and nucleophilicity are kind of similar and are related directly. There is one difference between these two terms, i.e., nucleophilicity is a kinetic term whereas basic strength is a thermodynamic term.

Electronegativity of the Nucleophilic Atom

It is a common logic that nucleophilic attack gets easily successful when the lone pair of electrons are loosely held. This clearly explains that less nucleophilic or weaker nucleophiles are those nucleophiles that have lone pairs on highly electronegative atoms.

Steric Hindrance

Crowded nucleophiles also termed as highly hindered nucleophiles, cannot move, which makes them a weaker nucleophile. For example, primary alkoxide ions are stronger than tertiary alkoxide ions due to the presence of steric hindrance. You can learn this in chapter Nucleophilic substitution reaction class 12.

Charged or Uncharged

In a nucleophilic reaction, if the two nucleophiles have the same nucleophilic atoms, the one which is negatively charged is more nucleophilic or has more strength than the neutral one because negative charges are more attracted towards a positive center.

Polar Solvent Effects

In the case of polar solvents like alcohol acids, H₂O, etc., the nucleophilicity of the nucleophiles depends on the effect of solvation. Heavily hydrated ions have a decreased ion mobility which in turn decreases the nucleophilicity. Hydration is a phenomenon that occurs when all the water molecules around the ion get crowded in one place. The order of nucleophilicity is not the only thing important in the case of polar solvents because hydration also plays a very important part in the determination of the strength of the nucleophiles.

Leaving Capacity of the Leaving Group

In a nucleophilic substitution reaction, the rate of the nucleophilic reaction depends on the incoming nucleophile’s nucleophilicity or its strength and the leaving group’s capacity to leave. The reaction can be faster if the leaving group has more leaving capacity. The formula to evaluate leaving capacity is that 'Weaker bases are better leaving groups'.

For example

F٥< cl٥< Br٥< I٥ is the order of leaving capacity.

Mechanisms of Nucleophilic Substitution

The rate of nucleophilic substitution reaction doesn't only depend on the nucleophilicity of the incoming nucleophiles and the leaving capacity of the leaving group but also on the mechanism with the help of which the reaction takes place. There are two mechanisms as follows.

  1. SN₂ Mechanism

It is also known as the substitution nucleophilic bimolecular mechanism. While a reaction takes place, this mechanism follows 2nd order kinetics and the rate law for the reaction. The rate law explains that the SN₂ mechanism reaction depends on the concentration of the incoming nucleophile as well as the substrate. Therefore the concentration nucleophilicity of both can increase the rate of reaction. This mechanism is there in the nucleophilic substitution reaction class 12 syllabus.

  1. SN₁ Mechanism

It is also known as unimolecular nucleophilic substitution reaction. Here, the mechanism is independent of the nucleophilicity of the incoming nucleophile but is dependent on the leaving capacity of the leaving group. This mechanism is also covered in the nucleophilic substitution reaction class 12 syllabus. You can get detailed information on these mechanisms from the nucleophilic substitution reaction PDF.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What are the Types of Substitution Reactions?

Answer: The substitution reaction is a reaction where an atom is replaced by another atom or a group of atoms in the molecule. There are two types of substitution reactions, nucleophilic reaction, and electrophilic reaction. In nucleophilic reaction, the reaction depends on the nucleophilicity of the incoming nucleophile and the leaving capacity of the leaving group. The nucleophilicity can be determined from the rates of the reaction. The atom getting attached to the original molecule is electron-rich in case of a nucleophilic reaction. In the case of an electrophilic reaction, the atom which is getting attached to the molecule is electron-deficient.

2. Are SN₁ Reactions Faster than SN₂ Reactions?

Answer: While SN₂ depends on the concentration of both incoming nucleophile and the leaving group, SN₁ depends on the concentration of the leaving group and it is independent of the concentration of incoming nucleophile. The concentration of incoming nucleophiles refers to its nucleophilicity that can be determined from the order of the reaction. The concentration of the leaving group refers to its leaving capacity. SN₁ is faster if the reagent is a weak base and the solvent used is polar protic. Whereas, SN₂ is faster when the reagent has a stronger base and the solvent used in it is polar aprotic.