Nucleophilic addition

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File:Substitution at carbonyl group.png
An example of a nucleophilic addition reaction that occurs at the carbonyl group of a ketone by substitution with hydroxide-based compounds, denoted shorthand. In this example, an unstable hemiacetal is formed.

In organic chemistry, a nucleophilic addition reaction is an addition reaction where in a chemical compound a π bond is removed by the creation of two new covalent bonds by the addition of a nucleophile.

Addition reactions are limited to chemical compounds that have multiply-bonded atoms:

Addition to carbon - hetero double bonds

Addition reactions of a nucleophile to carbon - hetero double bonds such as C=O or C=N show a wide variety. These bonds are polar (have a large difference in electronegativity between the two atoms) consequently carbon carries a partial positive charge. This makes this atom the primary target for the nucleophile.

YH + R1R2C=O → YR1R2C-O- + H+ → YR1R2C-OH

This type of reaction is also called a 1,2 nucleophilic addition. The stereochemistry of this type of nucleophilic attack is not an issue, when both alkyl substituents are dissimilar and there are not any other controlling issues such as chelation with a Lewis acid, the reaction product is a racemate. Addition reactions of this type are numerous. When the addition reaction is accompanied by an elimination the reaction type is nucleophilic acyl substitution or an addition-elimination reaction.


With a carbonyl compound as an electrophile, the nucleophile can be:


With nitrile electrophiles nucleophilic addition take place by:

Imines and other

With imine electrophiles nucleophilic addition take place by:

With miscellaneous electrophiles:

Nucleophiles attack carbonyl centers from a specific angle called the Bürgi-Dunitz angle.

Addition to carbon - carbon double bonds

Y-Z + C=C → Y-C-C-Z

The driving force for this reaction is the formation of an nucleophile Y- that forms a covalent bond with an electron-poor unsaturated system -C=C- (step 1). The negative charge on Y is transferred to the carbon - carbon bond.

step (1) Y- + -C=C(X) + Z → Y-C-C(X)--

In step 2 the negatively charged carbanion combines with (Z) that is electron-poor to form the second covalent bond.

step (2) Y-C-C(X)-- + Z → Y-C-C(X)-Z

Ordinary alkenes are not susceptible to a nucleophilic attack (apolar bond). Styrene reacts in toluene with sodium to 1,3-diphenylpropane [1] through the intermediate carbanion:

Ph-CH3 + Na → Ph-CH2- + NaH
Ph-C=CH2 + Ph-CH2- → Ph-CH2CH2CH2-Ph

Fullerenes have unusual double bond reactivity and additions such has the Bingel reaction are more frequent.

When X is a carbonyl group like C=O or COOR or a cyanide group (CN), the reaction type is a conjugate addition reaction. The substituent X helps to stabilize the negative charge on the carbon atom by its inductive effect.

In addition when Y-Z is an active hydrogen compound the reaction is known as a Michael reaction.

Perfluorinated alkenes (alkenes that have all hydrogens replaced by fluorine) are highly prone to nucleophilic addition, for example by fluoride ion from caesium fluoride or silver(I) fluoride to give a perfluoroalkyl anion.


  • [1] Sodium-catalyzed Side Chain Aralkylation of Alkylbenzenes with Styrene Herman Pines, Dieter Wunderlich J. Am. Chem. Soc.; 1958; 80(22)6001-6004.
  • March Jerry; (1885). Advanced Organic Chemistry reactions, mechanisms and structure (3rd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, inc. ISBN 0-471-85472-7

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