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Styrene Produced In One Step

Industrial Organic Chemistry: New catalyst enables single-step synthesis of styrene from benzene and ethylene

by Stu Borman
April 27, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 17

A new catalyst makes possible a long-standing research goal—synthesizing styrene from benzene and ethylene in a single step. Styrene, used for fine chemicals synthesis and plastics and elastomer preparation, is currently produced globally in the 20 million-ton-per-year range, so a more efficient method could result in significant cost savings. It’s generally made by using AlCl3 (with HF) or zeolites to convert benzene and ethylene to ethylbenzene, followed by dehydrogenation to styrene. Now, T. Brent Gunnoe of the University of Virginia, Thomas R. Cundari of the University of North Texas, and coworkers have identified a rhodium catalyst that does the trick in one step (Science 2015, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa2260). Their approach converts benzene, ethylene, and a Cu(II) reagent to styrene plus a Cu(I) compound, with 100% styrene selectivity. Although a rhodium catalyst might be too expensive for practical industrial use, Gunnoe believes it’s a major step toward a more efficient industrial process and notes that its selectivity is unprecedented. “If they can ultimately recycle the copper oxidant with oxygen, the commercial potential looks high,” comments Karen Goldberg of the University of Washington.

Reaction scheme showing the conventional two-step synthetic pathway for making styrene and a one-step catalytic pathway.


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