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Predict Phosphine Reactivity with One Simple Metric

Researchers explore possible features that describe phosphine structure to predict their reactivity

University of Utah

Phosphines are among the most important ligands for transition metal catalysis. Phosphines bind to a metal and modify its structure, reactivity, and selectivity. Many of the most practiced catalytic reactions in the pharmaceutical/commodity chemical industry use phosphines as ligands, such as cross-coupling. In these and many other cases, small changes to the phosphine structure often have significant impacts on the catalyst structure and reactivity.

Using an inventory of phosphines in the recently released “Kraken” virtual chemical library, Matt Sigman of the University of Utah, Abigail Doyle of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and their colleagues explored several possible features that describe phosphine structure to predict their reactivity. Many of the previously reported features have proven to be inconsistent, hinting at the possibility of another unknown process controlling reactivity.

One feature emerged as the best predictor: %Vbur (min) or the minimum percent buried volume; this feature describes the smallest form of a ligand that is energetically accessible as measured by how much of that ligand tucks into a sphere of 3.5 Angstroms centered at a metal atom. It’s non-intuitive. But it works, categorizing phosphine structures as active or inactive in many experimental datasets.

The combination of mechanism insight and predictive power will advance organometallic chemistry and catalysis, the researchers say. This is facilitated by the ease of computing %Vbur(min) and predicting if the labor, resource, and time-intensive process of preparing a new phosphine is worth doing. 

Some of the phosphines in the study are, yes, named after dinosaurs. When Kevin Wu, then a chemistry graduate student at Princeton University in the lab of Doyle, developed a series of phosphines, he wasn’t comfortable with naming them after himself. Instead, on another student’s suggestion, the Doyle lab started naming them after dinosaurs. With the help of Doyle's six-year-old son, the team branded the new “DinoPhos” family with names like “TyrannoPhos” and “TriceraPhos.”

The team is using the %Vbur (min) metric to design a new phosphine. Its name? PteroPhos, of course.

- This press release was provided by the University of Utah