White Phosphorus Is Air-Stable Within a Self-Assembled Tetrahedral Capsule

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Science  26 Jun 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5935, pp. 1697-1699
DOI: 10.1126/science.1175313

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Molecular Fire Quencher

Cage-shaped molecular assemblies can regulate the reactivity of smaller molecules trapped within them. Mal et al. (p. 1697) extend this approach to enable the protection of elemental white phosphorus (P4), a substance that rapidly ignites on contact with oxygen. The tetrahedral cages self-assemble in aqueous solution through coordination of six ligands to four iron ions, and efficiently capture phosphorus from a suspension. The water-soluble host-guest constructs were stable in air for at least 4 months, but released intact P4 rapidly on displacement by added benzene.


The air-sensitive nature of white phosphorus underlies its destructive effect as a munition: Tetrahedral P4 molecules readily react with atmospheric dioxygen, leading this form of the element to spontaneously combust upon exposure to air. Here, we show that hydrophobic P4 molecules are rendered air-stable and water-soluble within the hydrophobic hollows of self-assembled tetrahedral container molecules, which form in water from simple organic subcomponents and iron(II) ions. This stabilization is not achieved through hermetic exclusion of O2 but rather by constriction of individual P4 molecules; the addition of oxygen atoms to P4 would result in the formation of oxidized species too large for their containers. The phosphorus can be released in controlled fashion without disrupting the cage by adding the competing guest benzene.

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