ConspectusThe hydrogenation of alkenes is one of the most impactful reactions catalyzed by homogeneous transition metal complexes finding application in the pharmaceutical, agrochemical, and commodity chemical industries. For decades, catalyst technology has relied on precious metal catalysts supported by strong field ligands to enable highly predictable two-electron redox chemistry that constitutes key bond breaking and forming steps during turnover. Alternative catalysts based on earth abundant transition metals such as iron and cobalt not only offer potential environmental and economic advantages but also provide an opportunity to explore catalysis in a new chemical space. The kinetically and thermodynamically accessible oxidation and spin states may enable new mechanistic pathways, unique substrate scope, or altogether new reactivity. This Account describes my groups efforts over the past decade to develop iron and cobalt catalysts for alkene hydrogenation. Particular emphasis is devoted to the interplay of the electronic structure of the base metal compounds and their catalytic performance. First generation, aryl-substituted pyridine(diimine) iron dinitrogen catalysts exhibited high turnover frequencies at low catalyst loadings and hydrogen pressures for the hydrogenation of unactivated terminal and disubstituted alkenes. Exploration of structure-reactivity relationships established smaller aryl substituents and more electron donating ligands resulted in improved performance. Second generation iron and cobalt catalysts where the imine donors were replaced by N-heterocyclic carbenes resulted in dramatically improved activity and enabled hydrogenation of more challenging unactivated, tri- and tetrasubstituted alkenes. Optimized cobalt catalysts have been discovered that are among the most active homogeneous hydrogenation catalysts known. Synthesis of enantiopure, C1 symmetric pyridine(diimine) cobalt complexes have enabled rare examples of highly enantioselective hydrogenation of a family of substituted styrene derivatives. Because improved hydrogenation performance was observed with more electron rich supporting ligands, phosphine cobalt(II) dialkyl complexes were synthesized and found to be active for the diastereoselective hydrogenation of various substituted alkenes. Notably, this class of catalysts was activated by hydroxyl functionality, representing a significant advance in the functional group tolerance of base metal hydrogenation catalysts. Through collaboration with Merck, enantioselective variants of these catalysts were discovered by high throughput experimentation. Catalysts for the hydrogenation of functionalized and essentially unfunctionalized alkenes have been discovered using this approach. Development of reliable, readily accessible cobalt precursors facilitated catalyst discovery and may, along with lessons learned from electronic structure studies, provide fundamental design principles for catalysis with earth abundant transition metals beyond alkene hydrogenation.
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