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Proton Transfers Are Key Elementary Steps In Ethylene Polymerization On Isolated Chromium(III) Silicates

Murielle F Delley, Francisco Núñez-Zarur, Matthew P Conley, Aleix Comas-Vives, G. Siddiqi, S. Norsic, V. Monteil, O. Safonova, C. Copéret
Published 2014 · Chemistry, Medicine

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Significance The Phillips catalyst—CrOx/SiO2—produces 40–50% of global high-density polyethylene, yet several fundamental mechanistic controversies surround this catalyst. What is the oxidation state and nuclearity of the active Cr sites? How is the first Cr–C bond formed? How does the polymer propagate and regulate its molecular weight? Here we show through combined experimental (infrared, ultraviolet-visible, X-ray near edge absorption spectroscopy, and extended X-ray absorption fine structures) and density functional theory modeling approaches that mononuclear tricoordinate Cr(III) sites immobilized on silica polymerize ethylene by the classical Cossee–Arlman mechanism. Initiation (C–H bond activation) and polymer molecular weight regulation (the microreverse of C–H activation) are controlled by proton transfer steps. Mononuclear Cr(III) surface sites were synthesized from grafting [Cr(OSi(OtBu)3)3(tetrahydrofurano)2] on silica partially dehydroxylated at 700 °C, followed by a thermal treatment under vacuum, and characterized by infrared, ultraviolet-visible, electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), and X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS). These sites are highly active in ethylene polymerization to yield polyethylene with a broad molecular weight distribution, similar to that typically obtained from the Phillips catalyst. CO binding, EPR spectroscopy, and poisoning studies indicate that two different types of Cr(III) sites are present on the surface, one of which is active in polymerization. Density functional theory (DFT) calculations using cluster models show that active sites are tricoordinated Cr(III) centers and that the presence of an additional siloxane bridge coordinated to Cr leads to inactive species. From IR spectroscopy and DFT calculations, these tricoordinated Cr(III) sites initiate and regulate the polymer chain length via unique proton transfer steps in polymerization catalysis.
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