Selective Phenol Hydrogenation to Cyclohexanone Over a Dual Supported Pd–Lewis Acid Catalyst

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Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1250-1252
DOI: 10.1126/science.1179713

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Cooperative Reduction

Selective redox transformation remains a general challenge in chemical synthesis. All too often, the most readily available precursor to a compound must be over-reduced (or over-oxidized) and then carefully coaxed back to a desired intermediate state. Such is the case with the synthesis of cyclohexanone, which is mass-produced for use in the preparation of nylon: Access by direct reduction of phenol is plagued by the rapid addition of too many hydrogen atoms to the substrate, producing an alcohol (cyclohexanol) in place of the ketone. Liu et al. (p. 1250) have discovered that the unexpected cooperation of supported palladium and a Lewis acid such as aluminum trichloride—two catalysts widely used alone but rarely in concert—facilitates highly selective conversion of phenol to cyclohexanone near room temperature. The key appears to be inhibition of the undesired ketone-to-alcohol reduction step by the Lewis acid.


Cyclohexanone is an industrially important intermediate in the synthesis of materials such as nylon, but preparing it efficiently through direct hydrogenation of phenol is hindered by over-reduction to cyclohexanol. Here we report that a previously unappreciated combination of two common commercial catalysts―nanoparticulate palladium (supported on carbon, alumina, or NaY zeolite) and a Lewis acid such as AlCl3―synergistically promotes this reaction. Conversion exceeding 99.9% was achieved with >99.9% selectivity within 7 hours at 1.0-megapascal hydrogen pressure and 50°C. The reaction was accelerated at higher temperature or in a compressed CO2 solvent medium. Preliminary kinetic and spectroscopic studies suggest that the Lewis acid sequentially enhances the hydrogenation of phenol to cyclohexanone and then inhibits further hydrogenation of the ketone.

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