electrophilic substitution

Electrophilic substitution

model showing the delocalised electrons in a benzene ring

Aromatic compounds all contain benzene or aromatic rings. Aromatic compounds are susceptible to attack by electrophiles and undergo electrophilic substitution reactions. Recall that electrophiles are electron deficient species. Benzene rings since they contain clouds of delocalised electrons above and below the plane of the carbon atoms (see image opposite) are prone to attack by electrophiles. The clouds of delocalised electrons are sterically unhindered and easily accessible by electrophile.

The benzene ring acts as a source of electron, that is it is a nucleophile. In an electrophilic substitution reaction:

Electrophilic subsitution reactions

The delocalised electrons in an aromatic molecule will attack an electrophile. The electrophile will then replace or substitute for one of the hydrogen atoms in the benzene ring to generate a positively charged intermediate cation (ion with a positive charge). This intermediate ion is resonance stabilised.
The final part of the reaction involves the attack of a nucleophile on the intermediate cation to generate the final product.

general mechanism of electrophilic subsitution reaction- Friedel Crafts

Electrolphilic substitution of benzene rings

Electrophilic substitution is a very versatile reaction and it is possible to add a variety of substituents onto a benzene ring using this reaction, for example:

We will cover each of the reactions above in this website but all these reactions proceed via the same mechanism, that is electrophilic substitution and the final result of this is simply that a hydrogen atom on the benzene ring is replaced by an electrophile, as outlined in the diagram above:

The mechanism of electrophilic substitution

The mechanism for a typical electrophilic substitution reaction is outlined below. It can be seen that this electrophilic substitution reaction simply consists of two separate steps:

The diagram below shows the mechanism for electrophilic substitution using both the Kekulé representation and the circle representation for the benzene ring. It is up to you as to which one you prefer to use, personally I prefer the Kekulé representation simply because I feel that it enables you keep track of how the electrons are moving throughout a mechanism, but its up to you as to which representation you prefer!

Electrophilic substitution mechanism

electrophilic substitution mechanism

Resonance hybrid structures

The intermediate cation formed in step 2 is as we have mentioned is resonance stabilised. Addition of the electrophile to the benzene ring is likely to be the slow step in the above reaction since it will remove or destroy the aromatic stabilisation that results from the delocalisation of the pi(π) electrons in the ring. Resonance is simply where the nuclei of the atoms stay in the same place and while the electrons move. In the diagram below it is possible to draw 3 resonance hybrid structures for the intermediate cation. Resonance helps to stabilise the ion and generally the more resonance structures you can draw the more stable the ion is likely to be.

It is important to mention that the double head arrow used to indicate resonance does NOT imply that all the structures actually exist, rather it is suggesting that the structure of the intermediate ion is a combination of all the resonance structures.

resonance stabilised structures 
for electrophilic substitution

Key Points

Practice questions

Check your understanding - Questions on electrophilic substitution.