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Sidesplitting Nickel Breaks Up Laughing Gas

N-Heterocyclic carbene activates normally inert nitrous oxide to nickel insertion, resulting in rupture of the N–N bond

by Stephen K. Ritter
September 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 36

Many people are familiar with laughing gas—nitrous oxide, N2O—for the euphoric effects it produces when inhaled as an anesthetic for dental procedures. The compound’s extreme inertness is what helps make it effective. Chemists have been interested in finding ways to make N2O more reactive to remediate its effects as a greenhouse gas or to use it as a reagent in industrial syntheses in the same way H2, CO, and other small-molecule gases are used. Kay Severin and coworkers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, have devised a process in which a nickel complex inserts itself sidelong into N2O’s N–N bond and cuts it in two (Inorg. Chem. 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ic401524w). The team’s trick to cracking up N2O rests with the reactive power of an N-heterocyclic carbene. When added together, the carbene grabs N2O’s terminal nitrogen, holding the molecule and weakening the N–N bond for a nickel cyclooctadiene complex to attack. The separated N and NO fragments could be released from the resulting dimeric nickel nitrosyl complex or transferred to an organic molecule in a separate step.


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