Jan 31, 2024

Halogenation of Alcohols: A Comprehensive Guide to the Functional Group Transformations

In the vast realm of organic chemistry, the halogenation of alcohols stands out as a crucial technique for effecting functional group transformations. This powerful method allows chemists to modify the structure of organic compounds, providing a gateway to a diverse array of reactions and applications. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the intricacies of halogenation of alcohol, exploring the mechanisms, reaction conditions, and the broader implications of this transformative process.


Halogenation, Alkyl halide, Alcohol, Appel Reaction, Nucleophilic Substitution Reaction (SN1 & SN2)

Table of Contents

  1. Understanding Halogenation of Alcohol
  2. Methods of Halogenation of alcohols
  3. Applications and Functional Group Transformations
  4. Precautions and Safety
  5. Conclusion

Understanding Halogenation of Alcohol

Halogenation of alcohol is a chemical reaction which involves the substitution of a hydroxyl (-OH) group in an alcohol with a halogen atom, such as chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br), or iodine (I). This conversion is significant as it opens doors to a plethora of reactions that can lead to the synthesis of various organic compounds.

Methods of Halogenation of alcohols

We will discuss here few important methods available for the functional group transformation;

A ) Reaction of alcohol (ROH) with hydrogen halide (HX)

B ) Reaction of alcohol (ROH) with Phosphorus trihalides (PX3)

C ) Reaction of alcohol (ROH) with Thionyl chloride (SOCl2)

D ) Appel Reaction

Lets see each type of reaction in details;

A) Reaction of alcohol (ROH) with hydrogen halide (HX)

The alcohol compounds can be converted to alkyl halide by the reaction with hydrogen halide such as HCl, HBr or HI.

Halogenation of  alcohol by hydrogen halide (HCl, HBr and HI)


The reaction mechanism for halogenation of alcohol by hydrogen halide typically follows a three-step process:

1. Protonation: The alcohol reacts with a strong acid (HCl) to protonate the hydroxyl group, making it a better leaving group. Here Cl ion liberates as anion.

Mechanism of halogenation of alcohol

2. Formation of Carbocation intermediate: Water molecule eliminates to form carbocation intermediate.

Mechanism of halogenation of alcohol

3. Attack of Nucleophile: The halide ion (X-) then attacks on carbocation, resulting in the formation of the halogenated product.

Mechanism of Halogenation of alcohol

The reaction mechanism is known as Unimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution (SN1) Reaction. In this reaction rate of the reaction depends upon the concentration of carbocation formed in the reaction. We have discussed SN1 reaction in separate article; please see the article for more details. [Link]

Here due to the formation of carbocation intermediates; there is always chance of rearrangement and elimination reaction product along with alkyl halide. Amount of side product is depending upon nature of the carbocation or alcohol. Here tertiary alcohol gives tertiary carbocation intermediate which forms easily and favors elimination reaction. Whereas primary alcohol gives primary carbocation which requires harsh reaction condition and favors alkyl halide. Therefore, reactivity of the alcohol substrate is predicted as follows;

Reactivity if alcohol in SN1 reaction

Selection of Solvent: Polar protic solvent such as water or methanol (CH3OH) can form hydrogen bonding with the leaving group in the transition state. Hence it favors to form carbocation. 

In this reaction there is always a possibility of formation of mixture of products. Therefore reaction yield of reaction is lower.

B) Reaction of alcohol (ROH) with Phosphorus trihalides (PX3)

Phosphorus trihalides are used for the halogenation of alcohols. For example, see the reaction which is shown below; here the alcohol compounds react with Phosphorus tribromide (PBr3) to produce alkyl halide.

Halogenation of alcohol by phosphorus tribromide PBr3

Reaction of alcohol compound with PBr3 follows a Two-step process;


1. Nucleophilic Substitution: The alcohol reacts with PBr3 to substitute Br atom and making it a better leaving group. Here Br ion liberates as anion. 

Mechanism of halogenation of alcohol by PBr3

2. Nucleophilic Substitution: The bromide ion (Br-) then attacks the protonated alcohol, resulting in the expulsion of Phosphorodibromidous Acid (HOPBr2) and the formation of the halogenated product.

Mechanism of halogenation of alcohol by PBr3

The reaction mechanism is known as Bimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution (SN2) Reaction. The rate of reaction is depending upon the concentration of alcohol and PBr3. We have studied SN2 reaction in separate article. Please see the article for more details. [Link]

Reactivity of substrate:

As the reaction follows SN2 mechanism, primary and secondary alcohols are more reactive in this process. Whereas tertiary alcohol which is bulkier substrate therefore it will be less reactive in the halogenation process.

Reactivity of alcohol in SN2 reaction

Selection of Solvent : Polar aprotic solvent such as DMF or THF are suitable for the SN2 reaction.

This reaction is good method for functional group transformation form alcohol to alkyl halide. There is less chance of rearrangement and side products. But the careful handling of PBr3 is recommended.

C ) Reaction of alcohol (ROH) with Thionyl chloride (SOCl2)

Chlorination of alcohol is achieved by reaction with thionyl chloride (SOCl2)

Chlorination of alcohol by thionyl chloride (SOCl2)

The reaction proceeds through following steps;


Step 1: Nucleophilic Addition:  The alcohol adds to SOCl2 molecule to form charged species.

Step 2: Removal of Cl: Electron pair on the oxygen atom forms bond S-O bond and this leads to elimination of the Cl ion.

Mechanism of chlorination of alcohol by SOCl2

Step 3: Deprotonation by Cl ion: The chloride ion (Cl-) deprotonates the substituted alcohol to form neutral molecule.

Step 4: Nucleophilic Substitution: The chloride ion (Cl-) then attacks of the substituted alcohol to produce halogenated compound and SO2 and Cl- as by products.

Mechanism of chlorination of alcohol by SOCl2
The thionyl chloride may affect the acid sensitive groups present in the molecule. Therefore it should be used cautiously. 

 D ) Appel Reaction

The Appel reaction is the chemical process that is used for converting an alcohol in to alkyl halide by using triphenyl phosphene and carbontetrachloride or carbontetrabromide. The reaction is named after Rolf Appel who was an inorganic chemist. He worked in the area of organophosphorus chemistry. The reaction scheme is as shown below;

Appel Reaction

In this process carbontetrabromide is used as source of Br to prepare alkyl bromides, carbontetrachloride is used as source of Cl to prepare alkyl chlorides. Whereas iodine or methyl iodide is used as source of I to prepare alkyl iodides.


The reaction proceeds through following steps;

Step 1: Reaction of triphenyl phosphene with carbon tetrabromide to form phosphene electrophile and bromoform anion.

Step 2: Proton transfer reaction of bromoform anion with alcohol to form alkoxide ion which is more nucleophilic.

Step 3: Alkoxide ion adds to the phosphene electrophile to form new Oxygen -phosphorous bond along with release of bromide ion

Step 4: SN2 reaction phosphonium species and bromide ion gives alkyl halide and triphenylphosphine oxide as by-product.

Mechanism of Appel Reaction
Bromination or Chlorination of alcohol by Appel reaction is preferred often due to the mild reaction conditions as compare to other methods which we have seen above. But there is always been an issue of purification of the compound because the side product (triphenyl phosphine oxide, TPPO) is difficult to remove from crude reaction mass.

Applications and Functional Group Transformations

1. Synthesis of Alkyl Halides: Alcohol halogenation is widely employed for the preparation of alkyl halides, which serve as versatile intermediates for various organic syntheses.

2. Substitution Reactions: Halogenated alcohols can undergo further substitution reactions, leading to the introduction of diverse functional groups.

3. Stereochemistry Considerations: The stereochemistry of the halogenation reaction is influenced by factors such as the nature of the alcohol, reaction conditions, and the choice of reagents.

Precautions and Safety

While halogenation of alcohol is a valuable tool in organic synthesis, it is essential to exercise caution due to the reactivity of some reagents involved such as phosphorus trihalides (PBr3, PCl3) and thionyl chloride (SOCl2). These chemicals are highly corrosive and toxic. Therefore, adequate safety measures, such as proper ventilation and the use of personal protective equipment, should be employed to minimize risks. Moreover, Appel reaction is comparatively safe method for conversion of alcohol in to alkyl halide.


In conclusion, the halogenation of alcohols is a fundamental process in organic chemistry, offering a gateway to diverse functional group transformations. By understanding the mechanisms, reaction conditions, and broader applications of alcohol halogenation, chemists can harness its power to design and synthesize a wide range of organic compounds with specific properties and functionalities. As with any chemical process, a thorough understanding of safety protocols is crucial to ensure the responsible and effective application of this transformative technique in the field of organic synthesis.

See Also:

  1. Alcohols
  2. Alkyl halides
  3. Synthesis of alcohols
  4. Synthesis of alkyl halides
  5. Nucleophilic Substitution Reactions
That is all for this topic, keep exploring and uncovering the wonders of chemistry and its applications! see you in the next blog. Thank you.

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