Methylhydroxycarbene: Tunneling Control of a Chemical Reaction

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Science  10 Jun 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6035, pp. 1300-1303
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203761

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Chemical reactivity is conventionally understood in broad terms of kinetic versus thermodynamic control, wherein the decisive factor is the lowest activation barrier among the various reaction paths or the lowest free energy of the final products, respectively. We demonstrate that quantum-mechanical tunneling can supersede traditional kinetic control and direct a reaction exclusively to a product whose reaction path has a higher barrier. Specifically, we prepared methylhydroxycarbene (H3C–C–OH) via vacuum pyrolysis of pyruvic acid at about 1200 kelvin (K), followed by argon matrix trapping at 11 K. The previously elusive carbene, characterized by ultraviolet and infrared spectroscopy as well as exacting quantum-mechanical computations, undergoes a facile [1,2]hydrogen shift to acetaldehyde via tunneling under a barrier of 28.0 kilocalories per mole (kcal mol–1), with a half-life of around 1 hour. The analogous isomerization to vinyl alcohol has a substantially lower barrier of 22.6 kcal mol–1 but is precluded at low temperature by the greater width of the potential energy profile for tunneling.

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