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Ambiphilic molecules : from organometallic curiosity to metal-free catalysts

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Ambiphilic molecules were first used as functional ligands for transition elements, which could enable intriguing organometallic transformations. In the past decade, these intramolecular Lewis pairs, first considered organometallic curiosities, have become staples in organometallic chemistry and catalysis, acting as Z ligands, activating inert molecules using the concept of frustrated Lewis pair (FLP) chemistry, and acting as metal-free catalysts. In this Account, we detail our contribution to this blossoming field of research, focusing on the use of ambiphilic molecules as metal-free catalysts for CO2 reduction and C-H borylation reactions. A major emphasis is put on the mechanistic investigations we carried out using reactivity studies and theoretical tools, which helped us steer our research from stoichiometric transformations to highly active catalytic processes. We first report the interaction of aluminum-phosphine ambiphilic molecules with carbon dioxide. Although these Lewis pairs can bind CO2, a study of the deactivation process in the presence of CO2 and hydroboranes led us to discover that simple phosphinoborane molecules could act as active precatalysts for the hydroboration of carbon dioxide into methanol precursors. In these systems, the Lewis basic sites interact with the reducing agents rather than with the electrophilic carbon of CO2, increasing the nucleophilicity of hydroboranes. Simultaneously, the weak Lewis acids stabilize the oxygen of the gas molecule in the transition state, leading to high reaction rates. Replacing the phosphine by an amine leads to a system enabling CO2 hydrogenation, albeit only in stoichiometric transformations. Investigation of the protodeborylation deactivation of aminoboranes led us to develop metal-free catalysts for the C-H borylation of heteroarenes. By protecting the Lewis acid sites of these catalysts using fluoride, we were able to synthesize practical, air-stable precatalysts allowing the convenient synthesis of heteroarylboronic esters on a multigram scale. Contrary to general perception of FLP chemistry, we also demonstrated that a significant increase in activity could be obtained by reducing the steric bulk around the active site. These smaller systems exist as stable dimers and are more energetically costly to dissociate into active FLPs, but the approach of the substrate and the C-H activation step are significantly favored compared to the bulkier analogues. An in-depth study of the stability and reactivity of these aminoborane molecules also allowed us to develop a metal-free catalytic S-H bond borylation system, and to report stoichiometric and spontaneous B-B bond formation and Csp3-H bond activation processes, highlighting the importance of H2 release as a thermodynamic driving force in these FLP transformations.

Accounts of chemical research, Vol. 51 (2), 454–464 (2018)
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