PerspectiveInorganic Chemistry

Boron compounds tackle dinitrogen

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Science  23 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6378, pp. 871
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar7395

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The high stability of elemental nitrogen (N2) is reflected in the name that Lavoisier coined for the element that makes up the seemingly inert component of the atmosphere, azote, meaning “no life.” Ironically, chemical processes that convert this robust molecule into ammonia (NH3) are essential to keep the billions of people on our planet alive. Both the industrial Haber-Bosch process and natural nitrogenase enzymes use iron (Fe) to catalyze this challenging chemical transformation. Transition metals (M) weaken or break the strong triple bond (N≡N) by donating electrons from their atomic d orbitals into the antibonding π orbitals of N2. Main-group elements such as boron (B) lack accessible d orbitals, so their ability to weaken N2 would seem to be very limited. However, on page 896 of this issue, Légaré et al. (1) show that modification of the electronic environment of the B atom can enable N2 binding and reduction at a B center.