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Boron nitride catalyzes olefin hydrogenations

Metal-free material, widely thought to be catalytically inactive, continues to surprise

by Mitch Jacoby
January 16, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 3

For the second time in about a month, researchers report that boron nitride, which ranks as a well-known catalyst support, but not as a catalyst, catalyzes industrially important reactions. This time it’s olefin hydrogenation, a reaction used for making fuels and chemicals and for processing foods (ACS Omega 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acsomega.6b00315). The advance may lead to lower-cost, metal-free industrial hydrogenation catalysts. A few studies in recent years have reported that boron nitride, especially the hexagonal form, h-BN, can catalyze water-splitting and other processes. Last month, scientists upped BN’s catalysis status by showing that it can drive industrially important dehydrogenation reactions. Now, a team led by Richard G. Blair of the University of Central Florida has shown that defect-laden h-BN, made via a ball-milling process, can serve as an active catalyst for hydrogenating propene, cyclohexene, diphenylethylenes, and other alkenes. The team found that h-BN mediates hydrogenations under milder conditions than those used with nickel-based hydrogenation catalysts and is more active than metal-free frustrated Lewis pair catalysts. NMR analysis and binding-energy calculations show that nitrogen vacancies are most likely the catalytically active sites among the eight types of lattice defects examined.

A schematic depicts propene hydrogenation on a boron nitride surface
Credit: ACS Omega
Propene binds at vacancy sites (defects) on a boron nitride surface (green and blue lattice) and reacts with surface-bound hydrogen atoms to form propane, which desorbs from the surface.


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