Catalytic valorization of lignin is a sustainable way to provide aromatics for the human society, which depends on the electronic structure of catalytic sites. We herein report the preparation of a carbon-modified nickel catalyst via carbothermal reduction of Ni-doped layered double hydroxides. Lignosulfonate (LS), a lignin resource from the pulp industry, was used as a renewable carbon precursor. The carbon residues in the nickel surface layer changed the 3d electron distribution of nickel, which was highly selective for the C–O bond hydrogenolysis of lignin into aromatics, and 22 wt % total mass yields of aromatics were achieved from hydrogenolysis of oxidized birch lignin.

Generation of controllable carbon radical under the assistance of N-oxyl radical is an efficient method for the activation of C–H bonds in hydrocarbons. We herein report that irradiation of α-Fe2O3 and N-hydroxyphthalimide (NHPI) under 455 nm light generates phthalimide-N-oxyl radical (PINO*), which after being formed by oxidation with holes, is confined on α-Fe2O3 surface. The half-life time of the confined radical reaches 22 s as measured by in situ electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) after the light being turned off. This allows the long-lived N-oxyl radical to abstract the H from C–H bond to form a carbon radical that reacts with molecular oxygen to form R3C–OO· species, decomposition of which leads to oxygenated products.

Substituted imidazoles are traditionally synthesized by co-condensation of multiple feedstocks. Herein, we report a new route for the synthesis of substituted imidazoles via photocyclization of readily available amines at room temperature. The reaction is achieved by the visible-light-induced C–C/C–N bond coupling and subsequent dehydrogenation reaction over Mo–ZnIn2S4 as a heterogeneous photocatalyst. A wide range of amines were converted into the corresponding tri- and tetra-substituted imidazoles with up to 96% total yields. The simplicity, high efficiency and mild condition merits of this new reaction will enable it to be useful in synthetic transformations.

In many catalytic processes, metastable reaction intermediates are more valuable and desirable than final products. Here, we report Ni–Niδ+ clusters on ceria where the extent of reduction of nickel oxide/ceria in H2 has been optimized. This catalyst shows high selectivity in reducing nitrobenzene to azoxybenzene, the latter usually being metastable. Due to strong electronic metal–support interactions between Ni and ceria, mixed Ni–Niδ+ clusters are formed on ceria even after reduction at 500 °C in hydrogen. The Ni–Niδ+ clusters are highly dispersed on ceria, as observed by high-angle annular dark-field scanning–transmission electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy element mapping. This structural uniqueness is clearly reflected in the inhibition of azoxybenzene hydrogenation to aniline, and therefore the catalyst shows high azoxybenzene selectivity (92%). In comparison, the Ni metal catalyst mostly gives aniline and the NiO catalyst has low activity. This study shows how to steer catalytic reactions toward metastable intermediate products by tuning the extent of reduction of metal oxides deposited on reducible oxides.

Obtaining high selectivity of aromatic monomers from renewable lignin has been extensively pursued but is still unsuccessful, hampered by the need to efficiently cleave C–O/C–C bonds and inhibit lignin proliferation reactions. Herein, we report a transfer hydrogenolysis protocol using a heterogeneous ZnIn2S4 catalyst driven by visible light. In this process, alcoholic groups (CαH–OH) of lignin act as hydrogen donors. Proliferation of phenolic products to dark substances is suppressed under visible light illumination at low temperature (below 50 °C); formation of a light and transparent reaction solution allows visible light to be absorbed by the catalyst. With this strategy, 71–91% yields of phenols in the conversion of lignin β-O-4 models and a 10% yield of p-hydroxyl acetophenone derivatives from organosolv lignin are achieved. Mechanistic studies reveal that CαH–OH groups of lignin β-O-4 linkage are initially dehydrogenated on ZnIn2S4 to form a "hydrogen pool", and the adjacent Cβ–O bond is subsequently hydrogenolytically cleaved to two monomers by the "hydrogen pool". Thus, the dehydrogenation and hydrogenolysis reaction are integrated in one-pot with lignin itself as a hydrogen donor. This study shows a promising way of supplying phenolic compounds by taking advantages of both renewable biomass feedstocks and photoenergy.

Selective cleavage of C–C bonds is pursued as a useful chemical transformation method in biomass utilization. Herein, we report a hybrid CuOx/ceria/anatase nanotube catalyst in the selective oxidation of C–C bonds under visible light irradiation. Using the lignin β-1 model as a substrate offers 96% yields of benzaldehydes. Characterization results by high angle annular dark field scanning transmission electron microscopy (HAADF-STEM) and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy element (EDX) mapping reveal that CuOx clusters are highly dispersed on the exposed anatase surface as well as on the nanosized ceria domains. In-depth investigations by Raman and ultraviolet visible diffuse reflectance spectra (UV−vis DRS), together with density functional theory (DFT) calculations, further verify that the CuOx clusters present on the ceria domains increase the concentration of surface defects (Ce3+ ions and oxygen vacancies) and accordingly improve the photocatalytic activity (Yang character); the CuOx clusters decorating on anatase suppress the side reaction (oxy-dehydrogenation without C–C bond cleavage) because of an upward shift in the valence band (VB) edge of anatase (Yin character). Mechanism investigation indicates hydrogen abstraction from β-carbon by photogenerated holes is a vital step in the conversion.

This work demonstrates the synthesis of an efficient photocatalyst, Au25(PPh3)10Cl2(SC3H6SiO3)5/TiO2, for selective oxidation of amines to imines. The photocatalyst is prepared via hydrolysis of Au25(PPh3)10Cl2[(SC3H6Si(OC2H5)3]5 nanoclusters in the presence of TiO2 support. The gold nanoclusters exhibit good photocatalytic activity using visible light and under mild thermal conditions for the selective oxidation with molecular oxygen (O2). The turnover frequency (TOF) of 4-methylbenzylamine oxidation is found to be 1522 h–1, which is considerably higher than that conventional gold catalysts. The gold nanoclusters present good recyclability and stability for the oxidation of a wide range of amines. The superior activity of the photocatalyst is associated with its unique electronic structure and framework. The catalytically active sites are deemed to be the exposed gold atoms upon detaching protecting ligands: i.e., PPh3. The Hammett parameter suggests that the photocatalytic process involves the formation of carbocation intermediate species. Further, Au–H species were confirmed by TEMPO (2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidinyloxy) as a trapping agent.

For lignin valorization, simultaneously achieving the efficient cleavage of ether bonds and restraining the condensation of the formed fragments represents a challenge thus far. Herein, we report a two-step oxidation–hydrogenation strategy to achieve this goal. In the oxidation step, the O2/NaNO2/DDQ/NHPI system selectively oxidizes CαH–OH to Cα═O within the β-O-4 structure. In the subsequent hydrogenation step, the α-O-4 and the preoxidized β-O-4 structures are further hydrogenated over a NiMo sulfide catalyst, leading to the cleavage of Cβ–OPh and Cα–OPh bonds. Besides the transformation of lignin model compounds, the yield of phenolic monomers from birch wood is up to 32% by using this two-step strategy. The preoxidation of CαH–OH to Cα═O not only weakens the Cβ–OPh ether bond but also avoids the condensation reactions caused by the presence of Cα+ from dehydroxylation of CαH–OH. Furthermore, the NiMo sulfide prefers to catalyze the hydrogenative cleavage of the Cβ–OPh bond connecting with a Cα═O rather than catalyze the hydrogenation of Cα═O back to the original CαH–OH, which further ensures and utilizes the advantages of preoxidation.

Selective oxidative cleavage of C-C bond is pivotal for producing functionalized molecules, useful for organic synthesis and biomass utilization. We herein report the oxidative C(OH)-C bond cleavage of secondary alcohols to acids over a copper/1, 10-phenanthroline complex with molecular oxygen as the oxidant. A wide range of secondary alcohols are converted into acids with up to 98% yields. More interestingly, it is effective for breaking up lignin model systems into acids, which is rarely achieved in previous studies. Density functional theory (DFT) calculations indicate a copper-oxo-bridged oxygen dimer is the active species for the C-H bond cleavage which is the rate-determining step for C-C bond.

Catalytic oxidation of C-C bond is a key technology to transform petroleum-based as well as sustainable biomass feedstock into more valuable oxygenates. We herein describe a convenient and useful oxidation strategy of converting ketones into carboxylic acids using homogeneous copper catalyst without additives and with O2 as the terminal oxidant. A wide range of aryl and aliphatic ketones as well as β–O–4 lignin models were selectively oxidized to acids via C-C bond cleavage. Mechanism studies by EPR and in situ NMR elucidate the principles of Cu/O2 reactivity that involves C-H bond and O2 activation via a peroxide species. This provides an important foundation for expanding the scope of useful aerobic oxidation reactions using copper catalysts.

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