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Development of Molecular Catalysts to Bridge the Gap between Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Catalysts


Catalysts, heterogeneous, homogeneous, and enzymatic, are comprised of nanometer-sized inorganic and/or organic components. They share molecular factors including charge, coordination, interatomic distance, bonding, and orientation of catalytically active atoms. By controlling the governing catalytic components and molecular factors, catalytic processes of a multichannel and multiproduct nature could be run in all three catalytic platforms to create unique end-products. Unifying the fields of catalysis is the key to achieving the goal of 100% selectivity in catalysis.

Recyclable catalysts, especially those that display selective reactivity, are vital for the development of sustainable chemical processes. Among available catalyst platforms, heterogeneous catalysts are particularly well-disposed toward separation from the reaction mixture via filtration methods, which renders them readily recyclable. Furthermore, heterogeneous catalysts offer numerous handles – some without homogeneous analogues – for performance and selectivity optimization. These handles include nanoparticle size, pore profile of porous supports, surface ligands and interface with oxide supports, and flow rate through a solid catalyst bed. Despite these available handles, however, conventional heterogeneous catalysts are themselves often structurally heterogeneous compared to homogeneous catalysts, which complicates efforts to optimize and expand the scope of their reactivity and selectivity.

Ongoing efforts are aimed to address the above challenge by heterogenizing homogeneous catalysts, which can be defined as the modification of homogeneous catalysts to render them in a separable (solid) phase from the starting materials and products. Specifically, we grow the small nanoclusters in dendrimers, a class of uniform polymers with the connectivity of fractal trees and generally radial symmetry. Thanks to their dense multivalency, shape persistence and structural uniformity, dendrimers have proven to be versatile scaffolds for the synthesis and stabilization of small nanoclusters. Then these dendrimer-encapsulated metal clusters (DEMCs) are adsorbed onto mesoporous silica. Through this method, we have achieved selective transformations that had been challenging to accomplish in a heterogeneous setting, e.g. π-bond activation and aldol reactions. Extensive investigation into the catalytic systems under reaction conditions allowed us to correlate the structural features (e.g. oxidation states) of the catalysts and their activity. Moreover, we have demonstrated that supported DEMCs are also excellent catalysts for typical heterogeneous reactions, including hydrogenation and alkane isomerization. Critically, these investigations also confirmed that the supported DEMCs are heterogeneous and stable against leaching.

Catalysts optimization is achieved through the modulation of various parameters. The clusters are oxidized (e.g., with PhICl2) or reduced (e.g., with H2) in situ. Changing the dendrimer properties (e.g., generation, terminal functional groups) is analogous to ligand modification in homogeneous catalysts, which affect both catalytic activity and selectivity. Similarly, pore size of the support is another factor in determining product distribution. In a flow reactor, the flow rate is adjusted to control the residence time of the starting material and intermediates, and thus the final product selectivity.

Our approach to heterogeneous catalysis affords various advantages: (1) the catalyst system can tap into the reactivity typical to homogeneous catalysts, which conventional heterogeneous catalysts could not achieve; (2) unlike most homogeneous catalysts with comparable performance, the heterogenized homogeneous catalysts can be recycled; (3) improved activity or selectivity compared to conventional homogeneous catalysts is possible because of uniquely heterogeneous parameters for optimization.

While localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) provides a powerful platform for nanoparticle catalysis, our studies suggest that in some cases interband transitions should be considered as an alternative mechanism of light-driven nanoparticle catalysis. The benefits already demonstrated by plasmonic nanostructures as catalysts provided the impetus for examining complementary activation modes based on the metal nanoparticle itself. Leveraging these transitions has the potential to provide a means to highly active catalysis modes that would otherwise be challenging to access. For example, for the preparation of highly active metal catalysts on a subnanosized scale is challenging, thus limiting their exploitation and study in catalysis. Our work suggests a novel and facile strategy for the formation of highly active gold nanocluster catalysts by light illumination of the interband transitions in the presence of the appropriate substrate.

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