Methods for the conversion of both renewable and non-petroleum fossil carbon sources to transportation fuels that are both efficient and economically viable could greatly enhance global security and prosperity. Currently, the major route to convert natural gas and coal to liquids is Fischer-Tropsch catalysis, which is potentially applicable to any source of synthesis gas including biomass and nonconventional fossil carbon sources. The major desired products of Fischer-Tropsch catalysis are n-alkanes that contain 9-19 carbons; they comprise a clean-burning and high combustion quality diesel, jet, and marine fuel. However, Fischer-Tropsch catalysis also results in significant yields of the much less valuable C 3 to C 8 n-alkanes; these are also present in large quantities in oil and gas reserves (natural gas liquids) and can be produced from the direct reduction of carbohydrates. Therefore, methods that could disproportionate medium-weight (C 3-C 8) n-alkanes into heavy and light n-alkanes offer great potential value as global demand for fuel increases and petroleum reserves decrease. This Account describes systems that we have developed for alkane metathesis based on the tandem operation of catalysts for alkane dehydrogenation and olefin metathesis. As dehydrogenation catalysts, we used pincer-ligated iridium complexes, and we initially investigated Schrock-type Mo or W alkylidene complexes as olefin metathesis catalysts. The interoperability of the catalysts typically represents a major challenge in tandem catalysis. In our systems, the rate of alkane dehydrogenation generally limits the overall reaction rate, whereas the lifetime of the alkylidene complexes at the relatively high temperatures required to obtain practical dehydrogenation rates (ca. 125-200 °C) limits the total turnover numbers. Accordingly, we have focused on the development and use of more active dehydrogenation catalysts and more stable olefinmetathesis catalysts. We have used thermally stable solid metal oxides as the olefin-metathesis catalysts. Both the pincer complexes and the alkylidene complexes have been supported on alumina via adsorption through basic para-substituents. This process does not significantly affect catalyst activity, and in some cases it increases both the catalyst lifetime and the compatibility of the co-catalysts. These molecular catalysts are the first systems that effect alkane metathesis with molecular-weight selectivity, particularly for the conversion of C n n-alkanes to C 2n-2n-alkanes plus ethane. This molecular-weight selectivity offers a critical advantage over the few previously reported alkane metathesis systems. We have studied the factors that determine molecular-weight selectivity in depth, including the isomerization of the olefinic intermediates and the regioselectivity of the pincer-iridium catalyst for dehydrogenation at the terminal position of the n-alkane. Our continuing work centers on the development of co-catalysts with improved interoperability, particularly olefin-metathesis catalysts that are more robust at high temperature and dehydrogenation catalysts that are more active at low temperature. We are also designing dehydrogenation catalysts based on metals other than iridium. Our ongoing mechanistic studies are focused on the apparently complex combination of factors that determine molecular-weight selectivity.
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