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Metal-polypyridyl catalysts for electro- and photochemical reduction of water to hydrogen.


Climate change, rising global energy demand, and energy security concerns motivate research into alternative, sustainable energy sources. In principle, solar energy can meet the world's energy needs, but the intermittent nature of solar illumination means that it is temporally and spatially separated from its consumption. Developing systems that promote solar-to-fuel conversion, such as via reduction of protons to hydrogen, could bridge this production-consumption gap, but this effort requires invention of catalysts that are cheap, robust, and efficient and that use earth-abundant elements. In this context, catalysts that utilize water as both an earth-abundant, environmentally benign substrate and a solvent for proton reduction are highly desirable. This Account summarizes our studies of molecular metal-polypyridyl catalysts for electrochemical and photochemical reduction of protons to hydrogen. Inspired by concept transfer from biological and materials catalysts, these scaffolds are remarkably resistant to decomposition in water, with fast and selective electrocatalytic and photocatalytic conversions that are sustainable for several days. Their modular nature offers a broad range of opportunities for tuning reactivity by molecular design, including altering ancillary ligand electronics, denticity, and/or incorporating redox-active elements. Our first-generation complex, [(PY4)Co(CH3CN)2](2+), catalyzes the reduction of protons from a strong organic acid to hydrogen in 50% water. Subsequent investigations with the pentapyridyl ligand PY5Me2 furnished molybdenum and cobalt complexes capable of catalyzing the reduction of water in fully aqueous electrolyte with 100% Faradaic efficiency. Of particular note, the complex [(PY5Me2)MoO](2+) possesses extremely high activity and durability in neutral water, with turnover frequencies at least 8500 mol of H2 per mole of catalyst per hour and turnover numbers over 600 000 mol of H2 per mole of catalyst over 3 days at an overpotential of 1.0 V, without apparent loss in activity. Replacing the oxo moiety with a disulfide affords [(PY5Me2)MoS2](2+), which bears a molecular MoS2 triangle that structurally and functionally mimics bulk molybdenum disulfide, improving the catalytic activity for water reduction. In water buffered to pH 3, catalysis by [(PY5Me2)MoS2](2+) onsets at 400 mV of overpotential, whereas [(PY5Me2)MoO](2+) requires an additional 300 mV of driving force to operate at the same current density. Metalation of the PY5Me2 ligand with an appropriate Co(ii) source also furnishes electrocatalysts that are active in water. Importantly, the onset of catalysis by the [(PY5Me2)Co(H2O)](2+) series is anodically shifted by introducing electron-withdrawing functional groups on the ligand. With the [(bpy2PYMe)Co(CF3SO3)](1+) system, we showed that introducing a redox-active moiety can facilitate the electro- and photochemical reduction of protons from weak acids such as acetic acid or water. Using a high-throughput photochemical reactor, we examined the structure-reactivity relationship of a series of cobalt(ii) complexes. Taken together, these findings set the stage for the broader application of polypyridyl systems to catalysis under environmentally benign aqueous conditions.

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