Ring strain

Ring strain

Ring strain is an organic chemistry term that describes the destabilization of a cyclic molecule—such as a cycloalkane—due to the non-favorable high energy spatial orientations of its atoms. Non-cyclic molecules do not exhibit ring strain because their terminal (end) atoms are not connected to force a particular type of spatial orientation.

Ring strain results from a combination of angle strain, conformational strain or Pitzer strain, and transannular strain or van der Waals strain.


Molecules with a high amount of ring strain consist of three, four, and some five-membered rings, including: cyclopropanes, cyclopropenes, cyclobutanes, cyclobutenes, [1,1,1] propellanes, [2,2,2] propellanes, epoxides, aziridines, cyclopentenes, and norbornenes. These molecules have bond angles between ring atoms which are more acute than the optimal tetrahedral (109.5°) and trigonal planar (120°) bond angles required by their respective sp3 and sp2 bonds. Because of the smaller bond angles, the bonds have higher energy and adopt more p-character to reduce the energy of the bonds. In addition, the ring structures of cyclopropanes/enes and cyclclobutanes/enes offer very little conformational flexibility. Thus, the substituents of ring atoms exist in an eclipsed conformation in cyclopropanes and between gauche and eclipsed in cyclobutanes, contributing to higher ring strain energy in the form of Van der Waals repulsion.

Organic Synthesis

The potential energy and unique bonding structure contained in the bonds of molecules with ring strain can be used to drive reactions in organic synthesis. Examples of such reactions are Ring opening metathesis polymerisation, photo-induced ring opening of cyclobutenes, and nucleophilic ring-opening of epoxides and aziridines.

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