Reduction is a simple strategy to convert a carbonyl group to a hydroxyl group. The three major pathways to reduce carbonyls to alcohols are catalytic hydrogenation, hydride reduction, and borane reduction.
Catalytic hydrogenation is similar to the reduction of an alkene or alkyne by adding H2 across the pi bond in the presence of transition metal catalysts like Raney Ni, Pd–C, Pt, or Ru. Aldehydes and ketones can be reduced by this method, often under mild to moderate heat (25–100°C) and pressure (1–5 atm H2), to yield 1° and 2° alcohols, respectively.
Figure 1. Catalytic hydrogenation can be suitable for industrial applications when harsh conditions are not required, but unsaturated carbon–carbon bonds are also reduced.
Hydride reduction can be achieved by hydride transfer reagents, like sodium borohydride (NaBH4) and lithium aluminum hydride (LiAlH4, or LAH), as nucleophilic attack by a free hydride ion, , is almost unknown for NaH salts due to its high charge density, making it a strong base. The hydrogen atoms of LAH and NaBH4, being covalently bonded to boron and aluminum atoms, have partial negative charges, thereby enhancing their nucleophilicity at the cost of basicity. The first step of nucleophilic addition leads to the formation of alkoxide ions. The byproduct alkoxyborohydride or alkoxyaluminate reduces three more carbonyl molecules, successively transferring all their hydrogen atoms. Since hydride is a poor leaving group, the hydride transfer steps are irreversible, and therefore the reaction proceeds to completion. Lastly, the reaction mixture is worked up with solvent (i.e., water or alcohol in the case of NaBH4 and dilute acid in the case of LAH).
Figure 2. Aldehydes and symmetrical esters produce one 1° alcohol product. Unsymmetrical esters produce a mixture of 1° alcohols.
LAH, NaBH4, and their derivatives are highly useful in the reduction of aldehydes and ketones. LAH, a powerful reducing agent, can also reduce carbonyl compounds like acids, esters, acyl chlorides, and amides. LAH reacts violently with water and other protic solvents, liberating hydrogen gas and forming metal hydroxides/alkoxides. Hence, LAH reductions are typically carried out in aprotic solvents like anhydrous diethyl ether and THF.
Figure 3. An alcoholic solution of lithium borohydride is a non-hazardous alternative to LAH in selectively reducing esters over acids.
On the other hand, NaBH4 is of a milder nature and generally reduces only in protic solvents like ethanol or methanol. Therefore, NaBH4 can be used to reduce aldehydes and ketones in the presence of functional groups like alkyl halides, esters, alkyl tosylates, and nitro groups. Diisobutylaluminum hydride (DIBAL-H) can also convert carbonyls to alcohols at room temperature by two successive additions of hydride ions. However, when reacted with esters at low temperatures, this reaction can be stopped at the aldehyde stage by adding only one equivalent of hydride ion.
Borane reduction uses a borane (BH3) solution in diethyl ether, THF, or Me2S to selectively reduce electron-rich carbonyl groups like carboxylic acids in the presence of other reducible functional groups such as esters and even ketones.
Figure 4. The formation of a reactive triacylborate intermediate with a more electrophilic carbonyl group than the starting ester molecule drives the reduction reaction forward.
For living organisms, reduced coenzyme NADH or its phosphoester NADPH is equivalent to laboratory hydride reagents in enzyme catalysis of similar biological reductions.
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