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Acc Chem Res. 2012 Apr 17;45(4):653-62. doi: 10.1021/ar2002528. Epub 2012 Jan 25.

Selective homogeneous and heterogeneous catalytic conversion of methanol/dimethyl ether to triptane.

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Arnold and Mabel Beckman Laboratories of Chemical Synthesis, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.


The demand for specific fuels and chemical feed-stocks fluctuates, and as a result, logistical mismatches can occur in the supply of their precursor raw materials such as coal, biomass, crude oil, and methane. To overcome these challenges, industry requires a versatile and robust suite of conversion technologies, many of which are mediated by synthesis gas (CO + H(2)) or methanol/dimethyl ether (DME) intermediates. One such transformation, the conversion of methanol/DME to triptane (2,2,3-trimethylbutane) has spurred particular research interest. Practically, triptane is a high-octane, high-value fuel component, but this transformation also raises fundamental questions: how can such a complex molecule be generated from such a simple precursor with high selectivity? In this Account, we present studies of this reaction carried out in two modes: homogeneously with soluble metal halide catalysts and heterogeneously over solid microporous acid catalysts. Despite their very different compositions, reaction conditions, provenance, and historical scientific context, both processes lead to remarkably similar products and mechanistic interpretations. In both cases, hydrocarbon chains grow by successive methylation in a carbocation-based mechanism. The relative rates of competitive processes-chain growth by methylation, chain termination by hydrogen transfer, isomerization, and cracking-systematically depend upon the structure of the various hydrocarbons produced, strongly favoring the formation of the maximally branched C(7) alkane, triptane. The two catalysts also show parallels in their dependence on acid strength. Stronger acids exhibit higher methanol/DME conversion but also tend to favor chain termination, isomerization, and cracking relative to chain growth, decreasing the preference for triptane. Hence, in both modes, there will be an optimal range: if the acid strength is too low, activity will be poor, but if it is too high, selectivity will be poor. A related reaction, the methylative homologation of alkanes, offers the possibility of upgrading low-value refinery byproducts such as isobutane and isopentane to more valuable gasoline components. With the addition of adamantane, a hydride transfer catalyst that promotes activation of alkanes, both systems effectively catalyze the reaction of methanol/DME with lighter alkanes to produce heavier ones. This transformation has the further advantage of providing stoichiometric balance, whereas the stoichiometry for conversion of methanol/DME to alkanes is deficient in hydrogen and requires rejection of excess carbon in the form of carbon-rich arenes, which lowers the overall yield of desired products. Alternatively, other molecules can serve as sacrificial sources of hydrogen atoms: H(2) on heterogeneous catalysts modified by cations that activate it, and H(3)PO(2) or H(3)PO(3) on homogeneous catalysts. We have interpreted most of the features of these potentially useful reactions at a highly detailed level of mechanistic understanding, and we show that this interpretation applies equally to these two widely disparate types of catalysts. Such approaches can play a key role in developing and optimizing the catalysts that are needed to solve our energy problems.

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