Carboxylic acids: Wikis


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Structure of a carboxylic acid
The 3D structure of the carboxyl group
A space-filling model of the carboxyl group

Carboxylic acids are organic acids characterized by the presence of at least one carboxyl group, which has the formula -C(=O)OH, usually written -COOH or -CO2H.[1] Carboxylic acids are Brønsted-Lowry acids — they are proton donors. Salts and anions of carboxylic acids are called carboxylates.

The general formula of a carboxylic acid is therefore R-COOH, where R is some monovalent functional group. Among the simplest examples are the formic acid H-COOH, that occurs in ants, and acetic acid H3C-COOH group, that gives vinegar its sour taste. Acids with two or more carboxyl groups are called dicarboxylic, tricarboxylic, etc. The simplest dicarboxylic example is oxalic acid (COOH)2, which is just two connected carboxyls. Mellitic acid is an example of a hexacarboxylic acid. Other important natural examples are citric acid (in lemons) and tartaric acid (in tamarinds).

Not every organic acid has a carboxyl group. For example, alcohols — compounds with a hydroxyl group -OH — are often mild acids. Meldrum's acid is an example of a string organic acid which lacks carboxylic groups.


Physical properties



Carboxylic acid dimers

Carboxylic acids are polar. Because they are both hydrogen-bond acceptors (the carbonyl) and hydrogen-bond donors (the hydroxyl), they also participate in hydrogen bonding. Together the hydroxyl and carbonyl group forms the functional group carboxyl. Carboxylic acids usually exist as dimeric pairs in nonpolar media due to their tendency to “self-associate.” Smaller carboxylic acids (1 to 5 carbons) are soluble with water, whereas higher carboxylic acids are less soluble due to the increasing hydrophobic nature of the alkyl chain. These longer chain acids tend to be rather soluble in less-polar solvents such as ethers and alcohols.[2]

Boiling points

Carboxylic acids tend to have higher boiling points than water, not only because of their increased surface area, but because of their tendency to form stabilised dimers. Carboxylic acids tend to evaporate or boil as these dimers. For boiling to occur, either the dimer bonds must be broken, or the entire dimer arrangement must be vaporised, both of which increase enthalpy of vaporisation requirements significantly.


Carboxylic acids are typically weak acids, meaning that they only partially dissociate into H+ cations and RCOO anions in neutral aqueous solution. For example, at room temperature, only 0.02 % of all acetic acid molecules are dissociated. Electronegative substituents give stronger acids.

Carboxylic Acids pKa
Formic acid (HCO2H) 3.77
Acetic acid (CH3CO2H) 4.76
Chloroacetic acid (CH2ClCO2H) 2.86
Dichloroacetic acid (CHCl2CO2H) 1.29
Trichloroacetic acid (CCl3CO2H) 0.65
Trifluoroacetic acid (CF3CO2H) 0.5
Oxalic acid (HO2CCO2H) 1.27
Benzoic acid (C6H5CO2H) 4.2

Ionization of a carboxylic acid gives a carboxylate anion, which is stabilized because the negative charge is shared (delocalized) between the two oxygen atoms. Each of the carbon-oxygen bonds in a carboxylate anion has partial double-bond character.


Carboxylic acids often have strong odors, especially the volatile derivatives. Most common are acetic acid (vinegar) and butyric acid (rancid butter). On the other hand, esters of carboxylic acids tend to have pleasant odors and many are used in perfumes.


The simplest series of carboxylic acids are the alkanoic acids, RCOOH, where R is a hydrogen or an alkyl group. Compounds may also have two or more carboxylic acid groups per molecule. The mono- and dicarboxylic acids have trivial names.

Carboxylic acid radical

In the absence of an additional substituent (usually indicated by "R"), the radical ·COOH group has only a separate fleeting existence.[3] The acid dissociation constant of ·COOH has been measured using electron paramagnetic resonance spectrocopy.[4]


Carboxylic acids are most readily identified as such by infrared spectroscopy. They exhibit a sharp band associated with vibration of the C-O vibration bond (νC=O) between 1680 and 1725 cm−1. A characteristic νO-H band appears as a broad peak in the 2500 to 3000 cm−1 region.[2] By 1H NMR spectrometry, the hydroxyl hydrogen appears in the 10-13 ppm region, although it is often either broadened or not observed owing to exchange with traces of water.

Occurrence and applications

Many carboxylic acids are produced industrially on a large scale. They are also pervasive in nature. Esters of fatty acids are the main components of lipids and polyamides of aminocarboxylic acids are the main components of proteins.

Carboxylic acids are used in the production of polymers, pharmaceuticals, solvents, and food additives. Industrially important carboxylic acids include acetic acid (component of vinegar, precursor to solvents and coatings), acrylic and methacrylic acids (precursors to polymers, adhesives), adipic acid (polymers), citric acid (beverages), ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (chelating agent), fatty acids (coatings), maleic acid (polymers), propionic acid (food preservative), terephthalic acid (polymers).


Industrial routes

Industrial routes to carboxylic acids generally differ from those used on smaller scale because they require specialized equipment.

  • Oxidation of aldehydes with air using cobalt and manganese catalysts. The required aldehydes are readily obtained from alkenes by hydroformylation.
  • Oxidation of hydrocarbons using air. For simple alkanes, the method is nonselective but so inexpensive to be useful. Allylic and benzylic compounds undergo more selective oxidations. Alkyl groups on a benzene ring oxidized to the carboxylic acid, regardless of its chain length. Benzoic acid from toluene and terephthalic acid from para-xylene, and phthalic acid from ortho-xylene are illustrative large-scale conversions. Acrylic acid is generated from propene.[5]
  • Base-catalyzed dehydrogenation of alcohols.
  • Carbonylation is versatile method when coupled to the addition of water. This method is effective for alkenes that generate secondary and tertiary carbocations, e.g. isobutylene to pivalic acid. In the Koch reaction, the addition of water and carbon monoxide to alkenes is catalyzed by strong acids. Acetic acid and formic acid are produced by the carbonylation of methanol, conducted with iodide and alkoxide promoters, respectively and often with high pressures of carbon monoxide, usually involving additional hydrolytic steps. Hydrocarboxylations involve the simultaneous addition of water and CO. Such reactions are sometimes called "Reppe chemistry":
  • Some long chain carboxylic acids are obtained by the hydrolysis of triglycerides obtained from plant or animal oils. These methods are related to soap making.
  • fermentation of ethanol is used in the production of vinegar.

Laboratory methods

Preparative methods for small scale reactions for research, instruction, or for production of small amounts of fine chemicals often employ expensive consumable reagents.

RLi + CO2 RCO2Li
RCO2Li + HCl RCO2H + LiCl

Less-common reactions

Many reactions afford carboxylic acids but are used only in specific cases or are mainly of academic interest:


The most widely practiced reactions convert carboxylic acids into esters, amides, carboxylate salts, acid chlorides, and alcohols. Carboxylic acids react with bases to form carboxylate salts, in which the hydrogen of the hydroxyl (-OH) group is replaced with a metal cation. Thus, acetic acid found in vinegar reacts with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to form sodium acetate, carbon dioxide, and water:

CH3COOH + NaHCO3 → CH3COONa+ + CO2 + H2O

Carboxylic acids also react with alcohols to give esters. This process is heavily used in the production of polyesters. Similarly carboxylic acids are converted into amides, but this conversion typically does not occur by direct reaction of the carboxylic acid and the amine. Instead esters are typical precursors to amides. The conversion of amino acids into peptides is a major biochemical process that requires ATP.

The hydroxyl group on carboxylic acids may be replaced with a chlorine atom using thionyl chloride to give acyl chlorides. In nature, carboxylic acids are converted to thioesters.

The carboxylic acid can be reduced to the alcohol by hydrogenation or using stoichiometric hydride reducing agents such as lithium aluminium hydride.

Specialized reactions

Nomenclature and examples

The carboxylate anion R-COO is usually named with the suffix -ate, so acetic acid, for example, becomes acetate ion. In IUPAC nomenclature, carboxylic acids have an -oic acid suffix (e.g., octadecanoic acid). In common nomenclature, the suffix is usually -ic acid (e.g., stearic acid).

Straight-Chained, Saturated Carboxylic Acids
Carbon atoms Common name IUPAC name Chemical formula Common location or use
1 Formic acid Methanoic acid HCOOH Insect stings
2 Acetic acid Ethanoic acid CH3COOH Vinegar
3 Propionic acid Propanoic acid CH3CH2COOH
4 Butyric acid Butanoic acid CH3(CH2)2COOH Rancid butter
5 Valeric acid Pentanoic acid CH3(CH2)3COOH Valerian
6 Caproic acid Hexanoic acid CH3(CH2)4COOH Goat fat
7 Enanthic acid Heptanoic acid CH3(CH2)5COOH
8 Caprylic acid Octanoic acid CH3(CH2)6COOH Coconuts and breast milk
9 Pelargonic acid Nonanoic acid CH3(CH2)7COOH Pelargonium
10 Capric acid Decanoic acid CH3(CH2)8COOH
12 Lauric acid Dodecanoic acid CH3(CH2)10COOH Coconut oil and hand wash soaps.
14 Myristic acid Tetradecanoic acid CH3(CH2)12COOH Nutmeg
16 Palmitic acid Hexadecanoic acid CH3(CH2)14COOH Palm oil
18 Stearic acid Octadecanoic acid CH3(CH2)16COOH Chocolate, waxes, soaps, and oils
20 Arachidic acid Eicosanoic acid CH3(CH2)18COOH Peanut oil

Other carboxylic acids include:

  • Short-chain unsaturated monocarboxylic acids
    • Acrylic acid (2-propenoic acid) – CH2=CHCOOH, used in polymer synthesis
  • Fatty acids – medium to long-chain saturated and unsaturated monocarboxylic acids, with even number of carbons

See also


  1. ^ Compendium of Chemical Terminology, carboxylic acids, accessed 15 Jan 2007.
  2. ^ a b R.T. Morrison, R.N. Boyd. Organic Chemistry, 6th Ed. (1992) ISBN 0-13-643669-2.
  3. ^ Milligan, D. E.; Jacox, M. E. (1971). "Infrared Spectrum and Structure of Intermediates in Reaction of OH with CO". Journal of Chemical Physics 54 (3): 927–942. doi:10.1063/1.1675022. 
  4. ^ The value is pKa = -0.2 ± 0.1.Jeevarajan, A. S.; Carmichael, I.; Fessenden, R. W. (1990). "ESR Measurement of the pKa of Carboxyl Radical and Ab Initio Calculation of the C-13 Hyperfine Constant". Journal of Physical Chemistry 94 (4): 1372–1376. doi:10.1021/j100367a033. 
  5. ^ Wilhelm Riemenschneider “Carboxylic Acids, Aliphatic” in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 2002, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. doi: 10.1002/14356007.a05_235.
  6. ^ Organic Syntheses, Coll. Vol. 3, p.234 (1955); Vol. 24, p.38 (1944) Link
  7. ^ Organic Syntheses, Coll. Vol. 3, p.237 (1955); Vol. 24, p.41 (1944) Link.

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