Ethers are compounds that contain the functional group –O–. Ethers do not have a designated suffix like the other types of molecules we have named so far. In the IUPAC system, the oxygen atom and the smaller carbon branch are named as an alkoxy substituent and the remainder of the molecule as the base chain, as in alkanes.
As shown in the following compound, the red symbols represent the smaller alkyl group and the oxygen atom, which would be named “methoxy.” The larger carbon branch would be ethane, making the molecule methoxyethane. Many ethers are referred to with common names instead of the IUPAC system names. For common names, the two branches connected to the oxygen atom are named separately and followed by “ether.” The common name for the compound shown in the example below is ethylmethyl ether:
Provide the IUPAC and common name for the ether shown here:
IUPAC: The molecule is made up of an ethoxy group attached to an ethane chain, so the IUPAC name would be ethoxyethane.
Common: The groups attached to the oxygen atom are both ethyl groups, so the common name would be diethyl ether.
Ethers can be obtained from alcohols by the elimination of a molecule of water from two molecules of the alcohol. For example, when ethanol is treated with a limited amount of sulfuric acid and heated to 140 °C, diethyl ether and water are formed:
In the general formula for ethers, R—O—R, the hydrocarbon groups (R) may be the same or different. Diethyl ether, the most widely used compound of this class, is a colorless, volatile liquid that is highly flammable. It was first used in 1846 as an anesthetic, but better anesthetics have now largely taken its place.
Diethyl ether and other ethers are presently used primarily as solvents for gums, fats, waxes, and resins. Tertiary-butyl methyl ether, C4H9OCH3 (abbreviated MTBE—italicized portions of names are not counted when ranking the groups alphabetically—so butyl comes before methyl in the common name), is used as an additive for gasoline. MTBE belongs to a group of chemicals known as oxygenates due to their capacity to increase the oxygen content of gasoline.
Want more practice naming ethers? This brief video review summarizes the nomenclature for ethers.