Ch. 6 - Thermodynamics and KineticsWorksheetSee all chapters
All Chapters
Ch. 1 - A Review of General Chemistry
Ch. 2 - Molecular Representations
Ch. 3 - Acids and Bases
Ch. 4 - Alkanes and Cycloalkanes
Ch. 5 - Chirality
Ch. 6 - Thermodynamics and Kinetics
Ch. 7 - Substitution Reactions
Ch. 8 - Elimination Reactions
Ch. 9 - Alkenes and Alkynes
Ch. 10 - Addition Reactions
Ch. 11 - Radical Reactions
Ch. 12 - Alcohols, Ethers, Epoxides and Thiols
Ch. 13 - Alcohols and Carbonyl Compounds
Ch. 14 - Synthetic Techniques
Ch. 15 - Analytical Techniques: IR, NMR, Mass Spect
Ch. 16 - Conjugated Systems
Ch. 17 - Aromaticity
Ch. 18 - Reactions of Aromatics: EAS and Beyond
Ch. 19 - Aldehydes and Ketones: Nucleophilic Addition
Ch. 20 - Carboxylic Acid Derivatives: NAS
Ch. 21 - Enolate Chemistry: Reactions at the Alpha-Carbon
Ch. 22 - Condensation Chemistry
Ch. 23 - Amines
Ch. 24 - Carbohydrates
Ch. 25 - Phenols
Ch. 26 - Amino Acids, Peptides, and Proteins
Johnny Betancourt

Carbocations and radicals are stabilized through hyperconjugation. Alkyl groups donate electron density to adjacent electron-deficient p-orbitals, and as a result tertiary carbocations and radicals are more stable than secondary or primary. 

Hyperconjugation

How does hyperconjugation in a carbocation work? A carbocation, by definition, has an empty p-orbital. When carbocations have neighboring groups, the sigma bonds of those neighboring groups can donate electron density to the carbocation because electrons are attracted to spaces that have a deficiency of electrons. The neighboring bond can be a C-H bond or a C-C bond. Let’s visualize this phenomenon using ethyl carbocation:

Side-note: remember that electrons are not point-objects; they’re closer to clouds of probability that, like a gas, can change their volume depending on the size of their container. The empty p-orbital essentially acts as an extension to the container of the C-H bond electrons. This is a gross oversimplification, but it should help visualize it :)

HyperconjugationHyperconjugation

In this case, the carbocation’s empty p-orbital and the sigma bond from the adjacent C-H bond are overlapping. This allows electron density to be distributed across both carbons and the hydrogens, which results in greater stability because the charge is more distributed. When the sigma bond is donating electron density, it’s partially rehybridizing from sp3 to sp2. It might be helpful to think about this as a partial self-elimination reaction. Let’s look at the kinda complicated resonance structures of the terminal propylium carbocation:­

Hyperconjugation resonance structuresHyperconjugation resonance structures

Okay, let’s break this down a bit. These are resonance contributors, but remember that molecules don’t oscillate between resonance forms; they exist as a resonance hybrid. That means that the bonds to hydrogen are actually still intact. This is just showing how the C-H bond’s electrons can be used to make a partial pi-bond to the carbocation in a resonance hybrid that resembles propene. 

Primary carbocation resonance hybridPrimary carbocation resonance hybrid

It’s no secret that understanding this concept in detail is not the easiest thing to do, but there’s good news! In undergraduate O-Chem, we really just need to understand the stability trends that result from it. But wait a second… what’s likely to be observed when we have a primary carbocation? Rearrangement!

Hydride shiftHydride shift

Now that we’ve got a secondary carbocation, the same kind of electron delocalization through hyperconjugation results in even more atoms supporting the positive charge. Here’s what the resonance hybrid looks like for the secondary propylium cation

Secondary carbocation resonance hybridSecondary carbocation resonance hybrid

The inductive effect on carbocations

Carbon is more electronegative than hydrogen. That means that carbons pull electron density away from hydrogen in a slightly polar bond. Electron-deficient carbons, like carbocations, are stabilized by neighboring carbons that in turn steal electron density from their attached hydrogens. This is one of the explanations of the carbocation stability trend, but it seems that the hyperconjugation argument holds more water. 

P.S. Radicals are also stabilized by hyperconjugation, so their stability trend follows the carbocation stability trend. They don’t, however, rearrange the way that carbocations do. In fact, most undergraduate Organic Chemistry courses strictly say that they don’t rearrange; you’re stuck with whatever radical is generated. 


Johnny Betancourt

Johnny got his start tutoring Organic in 2006 when he was a Teaching Assistant. He graduated in Chemistry from FIU and finished up his UF Doctor of Pharmacy last year. He now enjoys helping thousands of students crush mechanisms, while moonlighting as a clinical pharmacist on weekends.