Difference Between Cyanohydrin And Nitrile

Organic chemistry is a fascinating field that involves the study of carbon-based compounds and their transformations. Cyanohydrin and nitrile are two such compounds, each possessing unique properties and applications. Despite their common use in various industrial and laboratory settings, they differ significantly in their chemical structure and behavior.

Cyanohydrins are organic compounds featuring a hydroxyl group attached directly to a carbon atom, which is also bonded to a cyano group. Nitriles, on the other hand, consist of a carbon triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom, making them less reactive and more versatile in organic synthesis. The primary difference between these compounds lies in their functional groups, influencing their reactivity and applications.

Understanding the distinct chemical and physical properties of cyanohydrins and nitriles reveals their significance in synthetic chemistry. These compounds serve as building blocks in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and the synthesis of complex organic molecules, underscoring their industrial and scientific importance.

Cyanohydrin Basics

Definition and Structure

Cyanohydrins are a group of organic compounds characterized by the presence of both a hydroxyl group (-OH) and a cyano group (-CN) attached to the same carbon atom. Structurally, cyanohydrins can be viewed as derivatives of aldehydes and ketones where the carbonyl carbon has been modified to include a cyano group, alongside a hydroxyl group. This unique configuration imparts specific reactivity and properties to cyanohydrins, distinguishing them from other compound types in organic chemistry.

Formation Process

The formation of cyanohydrins is straightforward and typically involves the reaction of a ketone or aldehyde with hydrogen cyanide (HCN). This reaction proceeds via a nucleophilic addition mechanism:

  1. The cyanide ion (CN-) acts as a nucleophile, attacking the electrophilic carbon of the carbonyl group.
  2. The addition of the cyanide ion results in the formation of an intermediate cyanohydrin anion.
  3. Subsequently, a proton (H+) is added to the oxygen of the intermediate, forming the cyanohydrin.
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This process is crucial in synthetic organic chemistry, providing a pathway to further chemical modifications and syntheses.

Common Uses

Cyanohydrins serve several practical applications in various industries:

  • Pharmaceuticals: They are used as intermediates in the synthesis of amino acids, antibiotics, and other pharmacologically active molecules.
  • Agrochemicals: Cyanohydrins are precursors to several herbicides and pesticides.
  • Synthetic Chemistry: They are starting materials for the production of carboxylic acids and amides through further chemical transformations.

Nitrile Essentials

Definition and Structure

Nitriles, also known as cyano compounds, consist of a carbon atom triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom (-C≡N). This functional group defines the chemical behavior of nitriles, making them significantly different from other organic compounds. The nitrile group can be attached to aliphatic or aromatic systems, leading to a wide range of compounds with diverse properties.

Synthesis Methods

The synthesis of nitriles is varied, involving several methods depending on the desired complexity and substrate availability:

  • Ammoxidation: This is the process of converting olefins directly into nitriles using ammonia and molecular oxygen, often in the presence of a catalyst.
  • Dehydration of Amides: Primary amides can be dehydrated, typically using phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5), to yield nitriles.
  • From Aldehydes: The Rosenmund-von Braun synthesis involves transforming an aldehyde into a nitrile using an amine and an oxidizing agent.

Industrial Applications

Nitriles are essential in numerous applications due to their stability and versatile chemical nature:

  • Synthetic Fibers: Acrylonitrile is used to produce synthetic fibers like nylon and acrylic.
  • Rubbers: Nitrile rubber is highly resistant to oils and chemicals, making it ideal for protective gloves, hoses, and gaskets.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Many bioactive compounds and pharmaceuticals are synthesized using nitrile intermediates.

Key Differences

Chemical Properties

The primary chemical difference between cyanohydrins and nitriles lies in their functional groups. Cyanohydrins are more reactive due to the presence of both hydroxyl and cyano groups, which can participate in further chemical reactions such as hydrolysis and oxidation. Nitriles, with their stable C≡N bond, are less reactive and can withstand harsher conditions.

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Physical Characteristics

Physically, cyanohydrins are typically more polar than nitriles due to the presence of the hydroxyl group. This results in higher boiling points and greater solubility in water compared to nitriles, which are generally more hydrophobic.

Applications Contrast

While both cyanohydrins and nitriles find use in the chemical industry, their applications often diverge due to their differing chemical properties. Cyanohydrins are more commonly used in synthesizing hydrophilic compounds, whereas nitriles are preferred for more robust and resistant materials like nitrile rubbers and plastics. This contrast highlights the importance of selecting the right compound based on the required application and desired chemical behavior.

Reaction Mechanisms

Cyanohydrin Formation

The mechanism for cyanohydrin formation involves key steps that define its synthetic utility in organic chemistry. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Nucleophilic Attack: Cyanide ion, a strong nucleophile, attacks the carbon of the carbonyl group in aldehydes or ketones.
  • Formation of Intermediate: This reaction forms a cyanohydrin anion intermediate.
  • Protonation: Finally, the intermediate is protonated, resulting in the formation of the cyanohydrin.

This process is widely used due to the cyanide ion’s ability to open pathways for further synthesis, making it a cornerstone in building more complex molecules.

Nitrile Synthesis

Nitrile synthesis can vary, but common methods include:

  • Ammoxidation: An alkene is treated with ammonia and oxygen, often in the presence of a catalyst, to form a nitrile.
  • Dehydration of Amides: Heating an amide with a dehydrating agent like phosphorus pentoxide results in nitrile formation.

These methods underscore nitriles’ significance in producing materials ranging from pharmaceuticals to industrial plastics.

Environmental Impact

Cyanohydrin Handling

Handling cyanohydrins requires understanding their reactivity and toxicity. Improper handling can lead to environmental spills, which may degrade into harmful substances. Industries use stringent controls to manage and minimize environmental exposure.

Nitrile Disposal Concerns

Disposal of nitriles is critical due to their stability and potential for long-term environmental impact. They must be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of under guidelines that ensure they do not contaminate water sources or soil.

Safety Protocols

Laboratory Safety with Cyanohydrins

Safety in laboratories when working with cyanohydrins involves:

  • Proper Ventilation: To prevent inhalation of toxic fumes.
  • Protective Gear: Gloves and goggles are mandatory to avoid skin and eye contact.
  • Spill Management: Immediate action is required for spills, using neutralizing agents.
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Industrial Handling of Nitriles

Handling nitriles in industrial settings focuses on:

  • Storage: Nitriles should be stored in cool, dry conditions to prevent degradation.
  • Handling Equipment: Use of proper tools and containment systems to prevent leaks and spills.
  • Training: Workers should be trained in the safe handling and emergency procedures related to nitriles.

Future Trends

Research Developments

Recent research into cyanohydrins and nitriles is paving the way for innovative uses and safer production methods. Studies focus on catalysts that can make reactions more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

Emerging Uses in Industry

The role of cyanohydrins and nitriles is expanding in industries such as:

  • Bioplastics: Nitriles are being explored as precursors for biodegradable plastics.
  • Pharmaceuticals: New drugs are being synthesized from these compounds, offering potential treatments for various diseases.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Cyanohydrin?

Cyanohydrin refers to any organic compound characterized by a hydroxyl group (-OH) and a cyano group (-CN) attached to the same carbon atom. These are typically formed from aldehydes or ketones through cyanohydrin reaction, important in synthetic organic chemistry for producing various intermediates.

How are Nitriles Synthesized?

Nitriles are synthesized primarily through the ammoxidation of hydrocarbons, where an alkane, alkene, or alkyne is reacted with ammonia and oxygen, or by the dehydration of primary amides. This process is crucial for producing nitriles used in pharmaceuticals and plastics.

Can Cyanohydrins be Converted to Nitriles?

Yes, cyanohydrins can be converted to nitriles through a dehydration reaction, where the hydroxyl group is removed as water. This transformation is useful in various chemical syntheses where nitriles serve as a more suitable functional group.

What are the Industrial Uses of Nitriles?

Nitriles find extensive applications in the production of synthetic fibers, resins, and rubbers. Due to their stability and resistance to chemicals, nitriles are also used in the manufacturing of protective gloves and other safety equipment in industries.


Cyanohydrins and nitriles play pivotal roles in the realm of organic chemistry, each contributing uniquely to scientific and industrial advancements. Their distinct properties and applications not only make them invaluable in the synthesis of various organic compounds but also highlight the diversity of chemical functionalities utilized in modern chemistry.

The exploration of cyanohydrins and nitriles underscores the complexity and creativity inherent in chemical synthesis. As research continues to evolve, these compounds are likely to find new applications and methods of production, further cementing their importance in the scientific community and industries worldwide.

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