What is the Difference Between Nitrile and Isonitrile

The main difference between nitrile and isonitrile is that in nitriles, the cyano group is attached to a carbon atom, while in isonitriles, it is attached to a nitrogen atom.

Nitrile and isonitrile are organic compounds containing a triple bond between a carbon and a nitrogen atom. Despite their similar names, nitriles and isonitriles exhibit different chemical behaviors and applications.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Nitrile 
      – Definition, Features, Applications
2. What is Isonitrile
      – Definition, Features, Applications 
3. Similarities Between Nitrile and Isonitrile
      – Outline of Common Features
4. Difference Between Nitrile and Isonitrile
      – Comparison of Key Differences
5. FAQ: Nitrile and Isonitrile
      – Frequently Asked Questions

Key Terms

Carbylamine, Cyanides, Isocyanides, Isonitrile, Nitrile

Difference Between Nitrile and Isonitrile - Comparison Summary

What are Nitriles

Nitriles, also known as cyanides, represent a class of organic compounds with distinctive chemical properties that stem from their unique molecular structure. These compounds consist of a carbon triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom, denoted as the CN functional group. The general chemical formula for nitriles is R-CN, where R signifies an organic substituent.

One of the key aspects of nitriles is their synthesis, often achieved through reactions involving halides or carboxylic acids. For instance, the reaction of a primary amide with a dehydrating agent, such as thionyl chloride, results in the conversion of the amide into a nitrile. Additionally, nucleophilic substitution reactions involving alkyl halides and metal cyanides are common methods for nitrile synthesis.

Nitrile vs Isonitrile

Nitriles exhibit distinctive reactivity owing to the polarization of the carbon-nitrogen triple bond. The electrophilic character of the carbon atom makes nitriles susceptible to nucleophilic attack. Hydrolysis, a reaction in which nitriles react with water in the presence of an acid or base, leads to the formation of carboxylic acids or ammonium salts, respectively. This hydrolytic property finds applications in the preparation of organic acids.

Furthermore, nitriles can be reduced to primary amines through catalytic hydrogenation or other reduction methods. This reduction involves breaking the carbon-nitrogen triple bond, yielding a product with a single carbon-nitrogen bond. The resulting amine functionalities make nitriles versatile intermediates in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and various organic compounds.

The presence of the cyano group also imparts interesting physicochemical properties to nitriles. For instance, they often display higher boiling points compared to their hydrocarbon counterparts of similar molecular weight. This is attributed to the polar nature of the CN bond, which leads to stronger intermolecular forces such as dipole-dipole interactions.

What are Isonitriles

Isonitriles, also known as isocyanides, represent a unique class of organic compounds with distinct chemical properties. The general structure of an isonitrile consists of a carbon atom triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom, with the carbon also bonded to an R group. This R group can be a variety of organic moieties, contributing to the diverse chemistry exhibited by isonitriles.

One notable characteristic of isonitriles is their pungent, unpleasant odor, which arises from the presence of the isocyanide functional group. Despite their off-putting smell, isonitriles have found applications in various chemical transformations. One of the prominent reactions involving isonitriles is the Ugi reaction, a multicomponent reaction that allows the synthesis of diverse compounds in a single step. This versatility has made isonitriles valuable in the realm of organic synthesis.

Compare Nitrile and Isonitrile

In terms of reactivity, isonitriles are known to act as both nucleophiles and electrophiles. The lone pair of electrons on the nitrogen atom makes isonitriles nucleophilic, enabling them to participate in reactions with electrophiles. On the other hand, the carbon atom’s electrophilic nature allows isonitriles to react as electrophiles in the presence of nucleophiles. This dual reactivity adds to their synthetic utility, facilitating the creation of complex molecular structures.

Moreover, isonitriles coordinate with metal ions. Isonitriles often serve as ligands in coordination complexes, forming stable metal-isocyanide complexes. These complexes exhibit unique electronic and spectroscopic properties, contributing to their significance in coordination chemistry. Understanding the coordination behavior of isonitriles has implications in catalysis and materials science.

The synthesis of isonitriles typically involves the reaction of a primary amine with chloroform in the presence of a base. This process generates an intermediate chloroformamidinium salt, which undergoes rearrangement to form the isonitrile. Alternatively, isonitriles can be prepared through the dehydration of formamides.

Similarities Between Nitrile and Isonitrile

  • Both are organic compounds containing a triple bond between a carbon and a nitrogen atom.

Difference Between Nitrile and Isonitrile


Nitrile is a chemical compound characterized by the presence of a cyano group, while isonitrile is a chemical compound containing an isocyanide group.


While nitriles have a CN group, where carbon is triple-bonded to nitrogen, isonitriles have an NC group, where carbon is singly bonded to nitrogen.


Nitriles are named by replacing the -e ending of the corresponding alkane with -onitrile. However, isonitriles are named by replacing the -e ending of the corresponding alkane with -isonitrile.

Found in

Nitriles are commonly found in organic compounds, particularly in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals and polymers, while isonitriles are less common in organic chemistry but find applications in certain synthetic processes and are often associated with their distinctive odor.

FAQ: Nitrile and Isonitrile

What is an example of nitrile?

An example of a nitrile is acetonitrile (CH₃CN), where a cyano group (C≡N) is attached to a methyl group.

What is isonitrile also known as?

Isonitrile is also known as carbylamine.

What is the general formula of nitrile?

The general formula of a nitrile is RCN.


Nitriles contain a cyano group (-C≡N) and are useful in organic synthesis and the production of polymers. In contrast, isonitriles feature an isocyanide group (-N≡C) and are notable for their role in certain chemical reactions. Thus, this is the main difference between nitrile and isonitrile.


1. “Isocyanide.”
2. “Nitrile.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Nitrile Structural Formulae V.1” By Jü – Own work (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Isocyanide-2D” (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Hasini A

Hasini is a graduate of Applied Science with a strong background in forestry, environmental science, chemistry, and management science. She is an amateur photographer with a keen interest in exploring the wonders of nature and science.

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