Making esters from alcohols and acids
In this experiment students investigate the reactions between a range of
and alcohols on a test-tube scale, to produce small quantities of a variety of esters quickly. acids
As a class experiment this can be organised, if desired, as a class-cooperative investigation of the ability of a range of alcohols to react with a range of organic acids. Working groups could compare their results with others to build a general overview of this route to the formation of esters, with an interesting variety of smells.
Depending on the actual way the lesson is organised, this may be designed to take from 15 minutes to an hour.
Each working group will require:
Glass specimen tubes, 4 (Note 1)
Plastic dropping pipettes, access to adequate supply
Beaker (100 cm
3 or 250 cm 3), (Note 1)
Heat resistant mat
Tripod and gauze
Glacial (concentrated) ethanoic acid (CORROSIVE), about 2 cm
Propanoic acid (CORROSIVE), about 2 cm
Benzoic acid (HARMFUL), about 0.2 g
Concentrated sulfuric acid (CORROSIVE), 5-10 drops
Access to the following alcohols – about 10 drops of each required
Methanol (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, TOXIC)
Ethanol (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE and HARMFUL if using Industrial Denatured Alcohol, IDA)
Propan-1-ol (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, IRRITANT)
One or more other alcohols, as available, from:
Propan-2-ol (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, IRRITANT)
Sodium carbonate solution, 0.5 M, about 10 cm
3 per ester
Refer to Health & Safety and Technical notes section below for additional information.
Health & Safety and Technical notes
Read our standard health & safety guidance
Wear goggles throughout.
Glacial (concentrated) ethanoic acid, CH
3COOH(l), (CORROSIVE) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Propanoic acid, CH
3CH 2COOH(l) (CORROSIVE) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Benzoic acid, C
6H 5COOH(s) (HARMFUL) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Concentrated sulfuric acid, H
2SO 4(l), (CORROSIVE) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3OH(l), (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, TOXIC) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3CH 2OH(l), (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE and HARMFUL if using IDA) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3CH 2CH 2OH(l), (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3CH 2CH 2CH 2OH(l) (HARMFUL) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3CH(OH)CH 3(l), (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3CH(OH)CH 2CH 3(l), (IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
3CH(CH 3)CH 2OH(l), (IRRITANT) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard.
Sodium carbonate solution, Na
2CO 3(aq) - see CLEAPSS Hazcard and CLEAPSS Recipe Book.
1 The essential requirements for these tubes are: neutral borosilicate glass a wide flat base, so that they are stable when stood in a beaker. If not available, small test-tubes could be used instead, standing in a larger (250 cm 3) beaker.
2 For younger students, prepare the specimen tubes by adding one drop of concentrated sulfuric acid to each. This minimises the risks involved with such students handling this substance. Advanced students may be reliable enough to prepare their own tubes in this way.
3 The alcohols (and organic acids) may be best provided as a central resource, away from flames, with a supply of plastic pipettes for each (or in small dropper bottles).
Add 10 drops of ethanoic acid (or propanoic acid) to the sulfuric acid in the specimen tube. a
Add 10 drops of ethanol (or other alcohol) to the mixture. b
Put about 10 cm c
3 of water into the 100 cm 3 beaker. Carefully lower the tube into the beaker so that it stands upright.
Heat the beaker gently on a tripod and gauze until the water begins to boil, then stop heating. d
Stand for 1 minute in the hot water. If the mixture in the tube boils, use the tongs to lift it out of the water until boiling stops, then return it to the hot water. e
After 1 minute, using tongs, carefully remove the tube and allow it to cool on the heat resistant mat. f
When cool, pour the mixture into a test-tube half-full of 0.5 M sodium carbonate solution. There will be some effervescence. Mix well by pouring back into the specimen tube – repeat if necessary. A layer of ester will separate and float on top of the aqueous layer. g
Smell the product by gently wafting the odour towards your nose with your hand – do not put your nose near the top of the tube! h
Repeat this procedure for up to three more different esters. i
Compare the odours of the different esters prepared by your group and by other groups. Write word equations for each reaction, and (for advanced students) chemical equations using structural formulae.
For solid acids, the procedures in steps 1 and 2 need to be changed:
Add 1 cm j 3 of methanol (or other alcohol) to the sulfuric acid in the specimen tube.
Weigh out 0.2 g of benzoic acid (or another solid acid, such as salicylic (2-hydroxybenzoic) acid (HARMFUL - see CLEAPSS Hazcard) and add it to the tube. Then proceed as above. Yields from solid acids are not as great, but odours are detectable and distinctive. k
This method is an updated version of the traditional test-tube scale approach to ester preparation, which minimises the risks involved in handling the reagents involved. For further information about this method of ester preparation, consult CLEAPSS Guidance Leaflet PS67-07 ‘Making esters’.
This method is only suitable for preparing small samples for characterisation by odour. Advanced students could scale up the quantities using larger test-tubes, but this would still not give sufficient product for isolation, characterisation by boiling point, or calculation of percentage yield.
Do NOT be tempted to use butanoic (butryric) acid, because of its very unpleasant odour (of rancid butter).
Health & Safety checked, 2016
This Practical Chemistry resource was developed by the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
© Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society of Chemistry
- for a broad review of esters, and interesting details of their odours and some uses.
Page last updated October 2015