Solvent-determined mechanistic pathways in zeolite-H-BEA-catalysed phenol alkylation


Alkylation of phenolics is of great importance in synthetic chemistry and the valorization of lignocellulosic-biomass-derived streams. Here, we unravel how alkylating reactants and solvents significantly alter the reaction pathways of zeolite-catalysed alkylation of phenol in the liquid phase. The carbenium ion formed from the dehydration of cyclohexanol or from the adsorption and protonation of cyclohexene acts as the electrophile, inducing carbon–carbon bond formation. Cyclohexanol at Brønsted acid sites (BAS) forms hydrogen-bonded monomers and protonated dimers in apolar solvents. The dimer appears to generate a much lower concentration of carbenium ions compared with the monomer. Higher alkylation rates in apolar solvents than in water are caused by the energetically more-favourable carbenium ion formation from either alcohol or olefin on non-hydrated zeolite BAS than on hydronium ions produced by BAS in pores filled with water.

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Fig. 1: Carbon-based concentration–time profiles of phenol alkylation on H-BEA-150 in decalin.
Fig. 2: Measured turnover frequencies (TOFs) for olefin formation from cyclohexanol dehydration.
Fig. 3: Reaction pathways proposed on the basis of in situ 13C NMR measurements of cyclohexanol dehydration.
Fig. 4: Measured TOFs for the initial conversion of phenol as a function of cyclohexanol concentration.
Fig. 5: Conversion of phenol and cyclohexanol as a function of time in the aqueous-phase phenol–cyclohexanol alkylation reaction on H-BEA-150.
Fig. 6: Influence of alkylating reactants and solvents on activation barriers for electrophile formation during liquid-phase phenol alkylation on H-BEA-150.


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Y.L. gratefully acknowledges support from the Graduate School (Faculty Graduate Center of Chemistry) of the Technische Universität München. The authors thank G. L. Haller (Yale University) for his critical reading of the manuscript. The authors also thank Z. Zhao (PNNL) for performing the NMR measurements. H.S., D.M.C., J.H. and J.A.L. acknowledge support from the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Division of Chemical Sciences, Geosciences & Biosciences. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is a multi-programme menational laboratory operated for DOE by Battelle.

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Y.L. carried out the reactions and performed the characterizations for selected materials; J.H. provided data on the in situ 13C NMR measurements and discussed the NMR data; Y.L. and H.S. analysed the reaction data. The manuscript was written with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Hui Shi or Johannes A. Lercher.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–35, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary References.

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Liu, Y., Baráth, E., Shi, H. et al. Solvent-determined mechanistic pathways in zeolite-H-BEA-catalysed phenol alkylation. Nat Catal 1, 141–147 (2018).

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