Geometric Stereoisomers (cis/trans)

Skills to Develop

  • Recognize that alkenes that can exist as cis-trans isomers.
  • Classify isomers as cis or trans.

Rotation of bonds?

There is free rotation about the carbon-to-carbon single bonds (C–C) in alkanes. In contrast, the structure of alkenes requires that the carbon atoms of a double bond and the two atoms bonded to each carbon atom all lie in a single plane, and that each doubly bonded carbon atom lies in the center of a triangle. This part of the molecule’s structure is rigid; rotation about doubly bonded carbon atoms is not possible without rupturing the bond. Use a molecular model kit to show how single bonds rotate, and double bonds do not rotate without breaking. Look at the two chlorinated hydrocarbons in Table 1.

Table 1. Rotation about Bonds. In 1,2-dichloroethane (a), free rotation about the C–C bond allows the two structures to be interconverted by a twist of one end relative to the other. In 1,2-dichloroethene (b), restricted rotation about the double bond means that the relative positions of substituent groups above or below the double bond are significant.

In 1,2-dichloroethane (part (a) of Table 1), there is free rotation about the C–C bond. The two models shown represent exactly the same molecule; they are not isomers. You can draw structural formulas that look different, but if you bear in mind the possibility of this free rotation about single bonds, you should recognize that these two structures represent the same molecule:

free rotation.jpg

Cis/trans isomers

In 1,2-dichloroethene Table 1, however, restricted rotation about the double bond means that the relative positions of substituent groups above or below the double bond become significant. This leads to a special kind of isomerism. The isomer in which the two chlorine (Cl) atoms lie on the same side of the molecule is called the cis isomer (Latin cis, meaning “on this side”) and is named cis-1,2-dichloroethene. The isomer with the two Cl atoms on opposite sides of the molecule is the trans isomer (Latin trans, meaning “across”) and is named trans-1,2-dichloroethene. These two compounds are cis-trans isomers, compounds that have different configurations (groups permanently in different places in space) because of the presence of a rigid structure in their molecule.

Consider the alkene with the condensed structural formula CH3CH=CHCH3. We could name it 2-butene, but there are actually two such compounds; the double bond results in cis-trans isomerism Figure 2.

Figure 2: Ball-and-Spring Models of (a) Cis-2-Butene and (b) Trans-2-Butene. Cis-trans isomers have different physical, chemical, and physiological properties.

Cis-2-butene has both methyl groups on the same side of the molecule. Trans-2-butene has the methyl groups on opposite sides of the molecule. Their structural formulas are as follows:

cis, trans.jpg

Figure 3: Models of (left) Cis-2-Butene and (right) Trans-2-Butene.

Note, however, that the presence of a double bond does not necessarily lead to cis-trans isomerism (Figure 4). We can draw two seemingly different propenes:


Figure 4: Different views of the propene molecule (flip vertically). These are not isomers.

However, these two structures are not really different from each other. If you could pick up either molecule from the page and flip it over top to bottom, you would see that the two formulas are identical.



  1. What are cis-trans isomers?

  2. Classify each compound as a cis isomer, a trans isomer, or neither.

    1. 2a.jpg
    2. 2b.jpg
    3. 2c.jpg
    4. 2d.jpg


Key Takeaway

  • Cis-trans isomers are different molecules of the same formula, with different properties, differing structurally only with the placement of groups around the double bond.