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Wöhler synthesis

Wöhler synthesis

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The Wöhler synthesis is the conversion of ammonium
Ammonium
The ammonium cation is a positively charged polyatomic cation with the chemical formula NH. It is formed by the protonation of ammonia...

 cyanate
Cyanate
The cyanate ion is an anion with the chemical formula written as [OCN]− or [NCO]−. In aqueous solution it acts as a base, forming isocyanic acid, HNCO. The cyanate ion is an ambidentate ligand, forming complexes with a metal ion in which either the nitrogen or oxygen atom may be the electron-pair...

 into urea
Urea
Urea or carbamide is an organic compound with the chemical formula CO2. The molecule has two —NH2 groups joined by a carbonyl functional group....

. This chemical reaction
Chemical reaction
A chemical reaction is a process that leads to the transformation of one set of chemical substances to another. Chemical reactions can be either spontaneous, requiring no input of energy, or non-spontaneous, typically following the input of some type of energy, such as heat, light or electricity...

 was discovered in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler
Friedrich Wöhler
Friedrich Wöhler was a German chemist, best known for his synthesis of urea, but also the first to isolate several chemical elements.-Biography:He was born in Eschersheim, which belonged to aau...

 in an attempt to synthesize ammonium cyanate. It is considered the starting point of modern organic chemistry
Organic chemistry
Organic chemistry is a subdiscipline within chemistry involving the scientific study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and preparation of carbon-based compounds, hydrocarbons, and their derivatives...

. Although the Wöhler reaction concerns the conversion of ammonium cyanate, this salt
Salt
In chemistry, salts are ionic compounds that result from the neutralization reaction of an acid and a base. They are composed of cations and anions so that the product is electrically neutral...

 only appears as an (unstable) intermediate. Wöhler demonstrated the reaction in his original publication with different sets of reactants: a combination of cyanic acid and ammonia
Ammonia
Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula . It is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent odour. Ammonia contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to food and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or...

, a combination of silver cyanate
Cyanate
The cyanate ion is an anion with the chemical formula written as [OCN]− or [NCO]−. In aqueous solution it acts as a base, forming isocyanic acid, HNCO. The cyanate ion is an ambidentate ligand, forming complexes with a metal ion in which either the nitrogen or oxygen atom may be the electron-pair...

 and ammonium chloride
Ammonium chloride
Ammonium chloride NH4Cl is an inorganic compound with the formula NH4Cl. It is a white crystalline salt that is highly soluble in water. Solutions of ammonium chloride are mildly acidic. Sal ammoniac is a name of natural, mineralogical form of ammonium chloride...

, a combination of lead cyanate and ammonia and finally from a combination of mercury cyanate and cyanatic ammonia (which is again cyanic acid with ammonia).

The reaction can be demonstrated by starting with solution
Solution
In chemistry, a solution is a homogeneous mixture composed of only one phase. In such a mixture, a solute is dissolved in another substance, known as a solvent. The solvent does the dissolving.- Types of solutions :...

s of potassium cyanate
Potassium cyanate
Potassium cyanate is an inorganic compound with the formula KOCN . It is a colourless solid. It is used to prepare many other compounds including useful herbicide. Worldwide production of the potassium and sodium salts was 20,000 tons in 2006.-Structure and bonding:Cyanate is isoelectronic with...

 and ammonium chloride
Ammonium chloride
Ammonium chloride NH4Cl is an inorganic compound with the formula NH4Cl. It is a white crystalline salt that is highly soluble in water. Solutions of ammonium chloride are mildly acidic. Sal ammoniac is a name of natural, mineralogical form of ammonium chloride...

 which are mixed, heated and cooled again. An additional proof of the chemical transformation is obtained by adding a solution of oxalic acid
Oxalic acid
Oxalic acid is an organic compound with the formula H2C2O4. This colourless solid is a dicarboxylic acid. In terms of acid strength, it is about 3,000 times stronger than acetic acid. Oxalic acid is a reducing agent and its conjugate base, known as oxalate , is a chelating agent for metal cations...

 which forms urea
Urea
Urea or carbamide is an organic compound with the chemical formula CO2. The molecule has two —NH2 groups joined by a carbonyl functional group....

 oxalate
Oxalate
Oxalate , is the dianion with formula C2O42− also written 22−. Either name is often used for derivatives, such as disodium oxalate, 2C2O42−, or an ester of oxalic acid Oxalate (IUPAC: ethanedioate), is the dianion with formula C2O42− also written (COO)22−. Either...

 as a white precipitate.

Alternatively the reaction can be carried out with lead cyanate and ammonia. The actual reaction taking place is a double displacement reaction to form ammonium cyanate:


Ammonium cyanate decomposes
Chemical decomposition
Chemical decomposition, analysis or breakdown is the separation of a chemical compound into elements or simpler compounds. It is sometimes defined as the exact opposite of a chemical synthesis. Chemical decomposition is often an undesired chemical reaction...

 to ammonia and cyanic acid which in turn react to produce urea in a nucleophilic addition
Nucleophilic addition
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....

 followed by tautomeric isomerization:


Complexation with oxalic acid
Oxalic acid
Oxalic acid is an organic compound with the formula H2C2O4. This colourless solid is a dicarboxylic acid. In terms of acid strength, it is about 3,000 times stronger than acetic acid. Oxalic acid is a reducing agent and its conjugate base, known as oxalate , is a chelating agent for metal cations...

 helps drive this chemical equilibrium
Chemical equilibrium
In a chemical reaction, chemical equilibrium is the state in which the concentrations of the reactants and products have not yet changed with time. It occurs only in reversible reactions, and not in irreversible reactions. Usually, this state results when the forward reaction proceeds at the same...

 to completion.

The Wöhler synthesis is of great historical significance because for the first time an organic compound
Organic compound
An organic compound is any member of a large class of gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical compounds whose molecules contain carbon. For historical reasons discussed below, a few types of carbon-containing compounds such as carbides, carbonates, simple oxides of carbon, and cyanides, as well as the...

 was produced from inorganic
Inorganic compound
Inorganic compounds have traditionally been considered to be of inanimate, non-biological origin. In contrast, organic compounds have an explicit biological origin. However, over the past century, the classification of inorganic vs organic compounds has become less important to scientists,...

 reactants. This finding went against the mainstream theory of that time called vitalism
Vitalism
Vitalism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is#a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions...

 which stated that organic matter possessed a special force or vital force inherent to all things living. For this reason a sharp boundary existed between organic and inorganic compounds. Urea was discovered in 1799 and could until then only be obtained from biological
Biology
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

 sources such as urine
Urine
Urine is a typically sterile liquid by-product of the body that is secreted by the kidneys through a process called urination and excreted through the urethra. Cellular metabolism generates numerous by-products, many rich in nitrogen, that require elimination from the bloodstream...

. Wöhler reported to his mentor Berzelius
Jöns Jakob Berzelius
Jöns Jacob Berzelius was a Swedish chemist. He worked out the modern technique of chemical formula notation, and is together with John Dalton, Antoine Lavoisier, and Robert Boyle considered a father of modern chemistry...



"I cannot, so to say, hold my chemical water and must tell you that I can make urea without thereby needing to have kidneys, or anyhow, an animal, be it human or dog".

It is argued that organic chemistry did not actually start with this discovery in 1828 but 4 years earlier with the synthesis of oxalic acid
Oxalic acid
Oxalic acid is an organic compound with the formula H2C2O4. This colourless solid is a dicarboxylic acid. In terms of acid strength, it is about 3,000 times stronger than acetic acid. Oxalic acid is a reducing agent and its conjugate base, known as oxalate , is a chelating agent for metal cations...

 in 1824 also by Wöhler and also from the inorganic precursor cyanogen
Cyanogen
Cyanogen is the chemical compound with the formula 2. It is a colorless, toxic gas with a pungent odor.The molecule is a pseudohalogen. Cyanogen molecules consist of two CN groups — analogous to diatomic halogen molecules, such as Cl2, but far less oxidizing...

. It is also argued that vitalism was not put to bed either in 1828. His contemporaries Liebig
Justus von Liebig
Justus von Liebig was a German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, and worked on the organization of organic chemistry. As a professor, he devised the modern laboratory-oriented teaching method, and for such innovations, he is regarded as one of the...

 and Pasteur
Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur was a French chemist and microbiologist born in Dole. He is remembered for his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and preventions of diseases. His discoveries reduced mortality from puerperal fever, and he created the first vaccine for rabies and anthrax. His experiments...

 never abandoned vitalism and it took until 1845 when Kolbe
Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe
Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe was a German chemist. He never used the first two of his given names, preferring to be known as Hermann Kolbe.-Life:...

 repeated an inorganic - organic conversion of carbon disulfide
Carbon disulfide
Carbon disulfide is a colorless volatile liquid with the formula CS2. The compound is used frequently as a building block in organic chemistry as well as an industrial and chemical non-polar solvent...

 to acetic acid
Acetic acid
Acetic acid is an organic compound with the chemical formula CH3CO2H . It is a colourless liquid that when undiluted is also called glacial acetic acid. Acetic acid is the main component of vinegar , and has a distinctive sour taste and pungent smell...

before vitalism started to lose supporters in serious numbers.