## Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Optical Rotation is a Bulk Property

It is important to note that optical rotation is usually discussed as a bulk property, because it’s usually measured as a bulk property by a polarimeter.  Any individual enantiomeric molecule can almost certainly rotate linearly polarized light.  However, in a bulk sample of a chiral substance, there is usually another molecule that can rotate light in the opposite direction.  This is due to the uniform distribution of the stereochemistry of a random sample of the molecules of one compound.  (In other words, the substance consists of different stereoisomers of one compound, and the proportions of the different stereoisomers are roughly equal.)  Because one molecule’s rotation of the light can be cancelled by another molecule’s optical rotation in the opposite direction, such a random sample of the compound would have no net optical rotation.  This type of cancellation will definitely occur in a racemic mixture.  However, if a substance is enantiomerically pure, then all of the molecules in that substance will rotate linearly polarized light in the same direction – this substance is optically active.

## Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Optical Rotation (a.k.a. Optical Activity)

A substance consisting of a chiral compound can rotate linearly polarized light – this property is known as optical rotation (more commonly called optical activity).  The direction in which the light is rotated is one way to distinguish between a pair of enantiomers, as they rotate linearly polarized light in opposite directions.

Imagine if you are an enantiomer, and linearly polarized light approaches you.

• If the light is rotated clockwise from your perspective, then you are a dextrorotary enantiomer.
• Otherwise, if the light is rotated counterclockwise from your perspective, then you are a levorotary enantiomer.

In a previous Chemistry Lesson of the Day, I introduced the concept of diastereomers, and I used threose as an example.  Let’s use threose to illustrate some notation about optical activity.

(-)-Threose

• Levorotary compounds are denoted by the prefix (-), followed by a hyphen, then followed by the name of the compound.  The above molecule is (-)-threose.
• Dextrorotary compounds are denoted by the prefix (+), followed by a hyphen, then followed by the name of the compound.  The enantiomer of (-)-threose is (+)-threose.

A compound’s optical rotation is determined by a polarimeter.

I strongly discourage the use of the prefixes (d)- and (l-) to distinguish between enantiomers.  Use (+) and (-) instead.

Beware of the difference between designating enantiomers as (+) or (-) and designating stereogenic centres as either (R) or (S).

It is important to note that optical rotation is usually referred to as a bulk property.

## Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Cis/Trans Isomers Are Diastereomers

Recall that the definition of diastereomers is simply 2 molecules that are NOT enantiomers.  Diastereomers often have at least 2 stereogenic centres, and my previous lesson showed an example of how such diastereomers can arise.

However, while an enantiomer must have at least 1 stereogenic centre, there is nothing in the definition of a diastereomer that requires it to have any stereogenic centres.  In fact, a diastereomer does not have to be chiral.  A pair of cis/trans isomers are also diastereomers.  Recall the example of trans-1,2-dibromoethylene and cis-1,2-dibromoethylene:

Image courtesy of Roland1952 on Wikimedia.

These 2 molecules are stereoisomers – they have the same atoms and sequence/connectivity of bonds, but they differ in their spatial orientations.  They are NOT mirror images of each other, let alone non-superimposable mirror images.  Thus, by definition, they are diastereomers, even though they are not chiral.

## Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Meso Isomers

A molecule is a meso isomer if it

Meso isomers have an internal plane of symmetry, which arises from 2 identically substituted but oppositely oriented stereogenic centres.  (By “oppositely oriented”, I mean the stereochemical orientation as defined by the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog priority system.  For example, in a meso isomer with 2 tetrahedral stereogenic centres, one stereogenic centre needs to be “R”, and the other stereogenic centre needs to be “S”. )  This symmetry results in the superimposability of a meso isomer’s mirror image.

By definition, a meso isomer and an enantiomer from the same stereoisomer are a pair of diastereomers.

Having at least 2 stereogenic centres is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a molecule to have meso isomers.  Recall that a molecule with $n$ tetrahedral stereogenic centres has at most $2^n$ stereoisomers; such a molecule would have less than $2^n$ stereoisomers if it has meso isomers.

Meso isomers are also called meso compounds.

Here is an example of a meso isomer; notice the internal plane of symmetry – the horizontal line that divides the 2 stereogenic carbons:

(2R,3S)-tartaric acid

Image courtesy of Project Osprey from Wikimedia (with a slight modification).

## Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Stereogenic Centre

A stereogenic centre (often called a stereocentre) is an atom that satisfies 2 conditions:

1. it is bonded to at least 3 substituents.
2. interchanging any 2 of the substituents would result in a stereoisomer.

If a molecule has only 1 stereogenic centre, then it definitely has a non-superimposable mirror image (i.e. this molecule is chiral and is an enantiomer).  However, depending on its stereochemistry, it is possible for a molecule with 2 or more stereogenic centres to be achiral; such molecules are called meso isomers (or meso compounds), and I will discuss them in a later lesson.

In organic chemistry, the stereogenic centre is usually a carbon atom that is attached to 4 substituents in a tetrahedral geometry.  In inorganic chemistry, the stereogenic centre is usually the metal centre of a coordination complex.

In organic chemistry, stereogenic centres with substituents in a tetrahedral geometry are common.  Inorganic coordination complexes can also have a tetrahedral geometry.  A stereoisomer with $n$ tetrahedral stereogenic centres can have at most $2^n$ stereoisomers.  The “at most” caveat is important; as mentioned above, it is possible for a molecule with 2 or more stereogenic centres to have a spatial arrangement that results in having a superimposable mirror image; such isomers are meso isomers.   I will discuss meso isomers in more detail in a later lesson.

## Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – 2 Different Ways for Chirality to Arise in Coordination Complexes

In a previous Chemistry Lesson of the Day, I introduced chirality and enantiomers in organic chemistry; recall that chirality in organic chemistry often arises from an asymmetric carbon that is attached to 4 different substituents.  Chirality is also observed in coordination complexes in inorganic chemistry.  There are 2 ways for chirality to be observed in coordination complexes:

1.   The metal centre has an asymmetric arrangement of ligands around it.

• This type of chirality can be observed in octahedral complexes and tetrahedral complexes, but not square planar complexes.  (Recall that square planar complexes have a plane formed by the metal and its 4 ligands.  This plane can serve as a plane of reflection, and any mirror image of a square planar complex across this plane is clearly superimposable onto itself, so it cannot have chirality just by having 4 different ligands alone.)

2.   The metal centre has a chiral ligand (i.e. the ligand itself has a non-superimposable mirror image).

• Following the sub-bullet under Point #1, a square planar complex can be chiral if it has a chiral ligand.

## Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Chirality and Enantiomers

In chemistry, chirality is a property of a molecule such that the molecule has a non-superimposable mirror image.  In other words, a molecule is chiral if, upon reflection by any plane, it cannot be superimposed onto itself.

Chirality is a property of the 3-dimensional orientation of a molecule, and molecules exhibiting chirality are stereoisomers.  Specifically, two molecules are enantiomers of each other if they are non-superimposable mirror images of each other.  In organic chemistry, chirality commonly arises out of an asymmetric carbon atom, which is a carbon that is attached to 4 different substituents.  Chirality in inorganic chemistry is more complicated, and I will discuss this in a later lesson.

It is important to note that enantiomers are defined as pairs.  This will be later emphasized in the lesson on diastereomers.