In many organic reactions that I have seen, running the reaction at $\mathrm{-78\ ^\circ C}$ seems to be quite a popular choice, but I've never seen any explanation for this. What makes this temperature such a popular choice?

  • 14
    $\begingroup$ That's easy one - sublimation of CO2 $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 23:03
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ A little like so many reactions being 'refluxed for 12-15 hours' => I put it on before I went home and shut it off in the morning. $\endgroup$
    – long
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 23:56
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Just like 'run for 72 hours' --> "I finally got it set up and running Friday afternoon, then didn't get around to shutting it off until after lunch on Monday." $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 16:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Relevant answer to a different question. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ And just like "the last reagent we tried worked!" $\endgroup$
    – user55119
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 19:09

2 Answers 2


Dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) sublimes at −78 °C. Dry ice and acetone are a common cold bath for chemical reactions. The melting point of acetone is -95 °C so the bath never gets cold enough to freeze the acetone. The bubbling of the carbon dioxide gas as the dry ice sublimes keeps the cold bath well stirred.

Typically, though, the temperature in the flask with an ongoing reaction is at least about 5 °C higher than the one in the cooling bath. (Except if using a thermocouple, working at a scale of 10...25 mL and less often implies that the thermometer is in cooling bath, and not in the reaction mixture. Thus, this temperature difference isn't recorded.)

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    $\begingroup$ Could you elaborate a little? $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 16:43

As MaxW said, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) sublimes at -78°C and it can be used in acetone, which is a cheap non-toxic solvent.

The biggest problem with cooling baths is that temperature must be monitored and corrected if necessary. It implies that the actual temperature is not constant but oscillates around an average value, which is highly undesirable. Also, constantly correcting the temperature makes it impossible to stray from the bench. Cryostats (cold generating devices) are useful sometimes but they usually are a real pain to use.

By contrast, the dry ice/acetone bath stays at -78°C, constantly and possibly for hours. When you put ice (a lot) in water, the water temperature will remain 0°C as long as there is still ice (roughly) and the same stands for the dry ice/acetone; as long as there is some dry ice left, the temperature will remain -78°C.

That is why the -78°C is so popular among chemists for low temperature experiments.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think acetone is non-toxic. $\endgroup$
    – Technetium
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Joel Though it is non-toxic. It is considered "harmful if swallowed" (who would do that?). Of course precautions must be taken but it is one of the safest solvents in the lab from a health point of view. $\endgroup$
    – SteffX
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ I’ll partially agree with @Joel that nothing is non-toxic. But I’ll also have to say that acetone is a lot less toxic than many other things in the lab (e.g. methanol which one would use for $-95~\mathrm{^\circ C}$). $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 11:44

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