Catalysis beyond frontier molecular orbitals: Selectivity in partial hydrogenation of multi-unsaturated hydrocarbons on metal catalysts

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Science Advances  26 Jul 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700939
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700939


The mechanistic understanding and control over transformations of multi-unsaturated hydrocarbons on transition metal surfaces remains one of the major challenges of hydrogenation catalysis. To reveal the microscopic origins of hydrogenation chemoselectivity, we performed a comprehensive theoretical investigation on the reactivity of two α,β-unsaturated carbonyls—isophorone and acrolein—on seven (111) metal surfaces: Pd, Pt, Rh, Ir, Cu, Ag, and Au. In doing so, we uncover a general mechanism that goes beyond the celebrated frontier molecular orbital theory, rationalizing the C═C bond activation in isophorone and acrolein as a result of significant surface-induced broadening of high-energy inner molecular orbitals. By extending our calculations to hydrogen-precovered surface and higher adsorbate surface coverage, we further confirm the validity of the “inner orbital broadening mechanism” under realistic catalytic conditions. The proposed mechanism is fully supported by our experimental reaction studies for isophorone and acrolein over Pd nanoparticles terminated with (111) facets. Although the position of the frontier molecular orbitals in these molecules, which are commonly considered to be responsible for chemical interactions, suggests preferential hydrogenation of the C═O double bond, experiments show that hydrogenation occurs at the C═C bond on Pd catalysts. The extent of broadening of inner molecular orbitals might be used as a guiding principle to predict the chemoselectivity for a wide class of catalytic reactions at metal surfaces.

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