Aldol Reaction - Mechanisms

Mechanisms

The aldol reaction may proceed via two fundamentally different mechanisms. Carbonyl compounds, such as aldehydes and ketones, can be converted to enols or enol ethers. These compounds, being nucleophilic at the α-carbon, can attack especially reactive protonated carbonyls such as protonated aldehydes. This is the "enol mechanism." Carbonyl compounds, being carbon acids, can also be deprotonated to form enolates, which are much more nucleophilic than enols or enol ethers and can attack electrophiles directly. The usual electrophile is an aldehyde, since ketones are much less reactive. This is the "enolate mechanism."

If the conditions are particularly harsh (e.g., NaOMe, MeOH, reflux), condensation may occur, but this can usually be avoided with mild reagents and low temperatures (e.g., LDA (a strong base), THF, −78 °C). Although the aldol addition usually proceeds to near completion under irreversible conditions, the isolated aldol adducts are sensitive to base-induced retro-aldol cleavage to return starting materials. In contrast, retro-aldol condensations are rare, but possible.

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