Jan 26, 2024

Wittig Reaction Explained: Understanding the Mechanism and Applications in Organic Chemistry

In the intricate world of organic chemistry, where reactions and mechanisms govern the creation of countless compounds, the Wittig reaction or Wittig olefination stands as a powerful tool for the synthesis of alkenes from carbonyl compounds. Named after its inventor, German chemist Georg Wittig, this reaction has become a cornerstone in the repertoire of synthetic organic chemists. In this blog post, we will delve into the Wittig reaction, exploring its, mechanism, and applications.

Table of Contents

  1. Understanding the Wittig Reaction
  2. Mechanism of the Wittig Reaction
  3. Applications of the Wittig Reaction
  4. Exploring Variations and Fine-Tuning the Wittig Reaction
  5. Understanding Limitations and Challenges
  6. Prospects and Emerging Trends
  7. Conclusion

1. Understanding the Wittig Reaction

The Wittig reaction is a method for the formation of carbon-carbon double bonds (alkenes) by the reaction of a carbonyl compound, typically an aldehyde or ketone, with a phosphorus ylide. The resulting product is an alkene and triphenylphosphine oxide.

Wittig Reaction
Figure 1: Wittig Reaction

The key reagent in the Wittig reaction is the phosphorus ylide, which is a molecule containing a positively charged phosphorus atom and a negatively charged carbon atom. This ylide acts as a nucleophile, attacking the electrophilic carbon of the carbonyl group, leading to the formation of a new carbon-carbon double bond.

2. Mechanism of the Wittig Reaction

1. Formation of the Phosphorus Ylide:

The phosphorus ylide is typically generated in situ by reacting a phosphonium salt with a strong base, such as sodium hydride or sodium alkoxide. The base deprotonates the phosphonium salt, resulting in the formation of the ylide.

Mechanism of Wittig Reaction
Figure 2: Formation of Phosphorus Ylide

2. Attack on the Carbonyl Group:

 The phosphorus ylide, now armed with a negatively charged carbon, attacks the electrophilic carbon of the carbonyl group. This nucleophilic addition leads to the formation of an oxaphosphatane intermediate.

Mechanism of Wittig Reaction
Figure 3: Attack on the Carbonyl Group

3. Formation of the Alkene:

The oxaphosphatane intermediate undergoes an intramolecular rearrangement, known as the Wittig rearrangement, resulting in the expulsion of the oxygen and the formation of the desired alkene.

Mechanism of Wittig Reaction
Figure 4: Formation of the Alkene

Structure of phosphorus ylide and its influence

The phosphorus ylide can be represented by two resonance structures. But the dominant structure is zwitterionic.

Structure of Phosphorus ylide
Figure 5: Structure of Phosphorus Ylide

Additionally, the structure of alkene product is strictly depended upon the nature of the phosphorous ylide. The ylide which is consisting of electron withdrawing group that stabilizes negative charge of carbanion is known as stabilized ylide and it gives trans alkene product. Whereas, the ylide which consists of electron donating groups attached to carbanion is referred as destabilized ylide and it give cis alkene product.

Structure of Phosphorus ylide (Stabilized and De-stabilized ylide)
Figure 6: Structure of Stabilized and De-stabilized ylide 

3. Applications of the Wittig Reaction

1. Synthesis of Alkenes:

The Wittig reaction is widely employed for the synthesis of alkenes with high stereoselectivity. The method allows for the introduction of a double bond at a specific position in a molecule, offering control over the stereochemistry of the final product.

For example, methylenetriphenylphosphorane is commonly used Wittig reagent for the installation of methylene group to the sterically hindered ketone compounds such as camphor.

Wittig Reaction of Camphor
Figure 7: Synthesis of Alkene by Wittig Reaction

The pharmaceutical industry benefits from the Wittig reaction in the synthesis of key intermediates for drug molecules. The precise control over stereochemistry makes it a preferred choice in medicinal chemistry.

2. Total Synthesis of Natural Products:

Organic chemists use the Wittig reaction in the total synthesis of complex natural products. Its versatility and ability to form carbon-carbon double bonds selectively make it a valuable tool in the creation of intricate molecular structures.1 For example, see the synthesis of Sapinofuranone B which is naturally occurring compound. In this synthesis, (E)-but-2-en-1-yltriphenylphosphonium bromide was used as Wittig salt to react with the intermediate aldehyde. 2

Synthesis of Sapinofuranone B
Figure 8: Synthesis of Sapinofuranone B

4. Exploring Variations and Fine-Tuning the Wittig Reaction

While the classical Wittig reaction has proven immensely valuable, researchers have developed several variations to enhance its scope and utility. One such modification is the Horner-Wadsworth-Emmons (HWE) reaction, which employs phosphonate esters instead of phosphonium salts. The HWE reaction is particularly useful when dealing with sensitive functional groups, as it often exhibits milder reaction conditions.3

Horner-Wadsworth-Emmons (HWE) reaction
Figure 9: Horner-Wadsworth-Emmons (HWE) Reaction

Additionally, the use of chiral phosphorus ylides has opened avenues for asymmetric Wittig reactions, allowing for the synthesis of optically active alkenes. This advancement is crucial in the context of pharmaceutical and medicinal chemistry, where the stereochemistry of a compound can profoundly influence its biological activity.

5. Understanding Limitations and Challenges

Despite its versatility, the Wittig reaction has some limitations. For instance, it may not be suitable for substrates containing acidic or highly basic functional groups, as these can interfere with the reaction. Moreover, the reaction may suffer from competitive side reactions, such as the formation of unwanted by-products or isomerization of the alkene.

Researchers continue to address these challenges through innovative strategies and the development of new reagents. For example, the use of stabilized phosphorus ylides has been explored to mitigate some of the side reactions associated with the classical Wittig reaction.

6. Prospects and Emerging Trends

As synthetic methodologies evolve, the Wittig reaction remains a focal point of research, with ongoing efforts aimed at expanding its applicability and improving its efficiency. Chemists are exploring new catalysts, exploring flow chemistry applications, and investigating the use of unconventional reaction media to further enhance the reaction's utility and sustainability.

Moreover, the integration of computational methods in predicting and optimizing Wittig reactions has become increasingly prevalent. This synergy of experimental and computational approaches allows chemists to streamline reaction conditions and design more efficient and selective processes.

7. Conclusion

The Wittig reaction, discovered more than six decades ago, continues to captivate the imagination of synthetic chemists worldwide. Its elegance lies not only in its simplicity but also in its versatility and applicability across a wide range of synthetic challenges. As our understanding of reaction mechanisms deepens, and innovative variations emerge, the Wittig reaction stands poised to play an integral role in shaping the future of organic synthesis. Whether in the realm of total synthesis, pharmaceuticals, or materials science, the Wittig reaction remains an indispensable tool, contributing to the fascinating field of organic chemistry.

See Also:

  1. Nomenclature of Alkenes
  2. Isomerization in Alkene
  3. Stereochemistry
  4. Organic Synthesis
  5. Reaction Mechanism
  6. Named Reactions


  1. Heravi, M.M., Ghanbarian, M., Zadsirjan, V. et al. Recent advances in the applications of Wittig reaction in the total synthesis of natural products containing lactone, pyrone, and lactam as a scaffold. Monatsh Chem 150, 1365–1407 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00706-019-02465-9
  2. Kumar P, Naidu SV, Gupta P. Efficient total synthesis of sapinofuranone B. J Org Chem. 2005 Apr 1;70(7):2843-6. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jo048087k
  3. See for the Horner-Wadsworth-Emmons (HWE) reaction https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horner%E2%80%93Wadsworth%E2%80%93Emmons_reaction

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