Solvent-mediated charge separation drives alternative hydrogenation path of furanics in liquid water


Compared to the vapour phase, liquid-phase heterogeneous catalysis provides additional degrees of freedom for reaction engineering, but the multifaceted solvent effects complicate analysis of the reaction mechanism. Here, using furfural as an example, we reveal the important role of water-mediated protonation in a typical hydrogenation reaction over a supported Pd catalyst. Depending on the solvent, we have observed different reaction orders with respect to the partial pressure of H2, as well as distinct selectivity towards hydrogenation of the conjugated C=O and C=C double bonds. Free energy calculations show that H2O participates directly in the kinetically relevant reaction step and provides an additional channel for hydrogenation of the aldehyde group, in which hydrogen bypasses the direct surface reaction via a hydrogen-bonded water network. This solution-mediated reaction pathway shows the potential role of the solvent for tuning the selectivity of metal-catalysed hydrogenation when charge separation on the metal surface is feasible.

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Fig. 1: Schematic for the reaction path in liquid-phase catalysis.
Fig. 2: Catalyst characterization and test.
Fig. 3: Free energy calculations of the hydrogenation of furfural.
Fig. 4: Reaction scheme for the hydrogenation of furfural over a metal surface in water.

Data availability

Any data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of the study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. The following files are available in the Supplementary Information: catalyst particle size calculations, FAL conversion and product yields in water at varying times and H2 pressures, H/D exchange experiment, derivation of rate equations, AIMD calculations of FAL in water, atomic structures along the reaction pathway, free energy diagram for furanyl ring hydrogenation and maximum rate analysis data.


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This work was supported by the US Department of Energy, Basic Energy Sciences (grant no. DE-SC0018284). The computational research used the supercomputer resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Centre (NERSC), the OU Supercomputing Centre for Education & Research (OSCER) at the University of Oklahoma and the Tandy Supercomputing Centre (TSC). The authors thank T. Sooknoi (King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, Thailand) for valuable discussions.

Author information




Z.Z. conducted material synthesis, reaction tests and the H/D exchange experiment. R.B. completed the DFT calculations, the free energy calculations and the micro kinetic analysis. W.X., Y.L. and S.W. performed the DFT calculations. N.M.B. and S.P.C. conducted the catalyst characterization and analysed the data. D.-T.N. and U.N. performed the AIMD calculations. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. B.W. and D.E.R supervised the project.

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Correspondence to Bin Wang or Daniel E. Resasco.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–17, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Notes 1–4, Supplementary References

Supplementary Data 1

DFT structure of FAL*+H* on Pd in H2O

Supplementary Data 2

AIMD simulation of FAL at the water/Pd interface

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Zhao, Z., Bababrik, R., Xue, W. et al. Solvent-mediated charge separation drives alternative hydrogenation path of furanics in liquid water. Nat Catal 2, 431–436 (2019).

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