In the present work we describe the structure and the spectroscopic characterization of a spirocyclic derivative of a rhodamine Bligand whose properties allow discrimination of light-up effects induced by metal ion chelation and variation of pH. Distinction of the two effects is important for the use of this type of ligand to detect and monitor metal ions in aqueous solutions. The synthesis of the ligand was performed in two steps, which involve the reaction of rhodamine B with hydrazine hydrate to form rhodamine B hydrazide followed by condensation with 2-pyridinecarboxaldehyde and was successfully optimized using a solvent free approach under microwave irradiation. The ligand was obtained in the expected spirolactam form and was characterized in the solid state by EA, MS and single-crystal X-ray diffraction. The ligand was characterized in solution by NMR and absorption and fluorescence spectroscopies and its properties were found to be sensitive to pH and concentration of iron(III). The study of the fluorescence properties at variable pH shows that the compound is fluorescent in the range 2 < pH < 4 with maximum intensity at pH 3 and allowed the determination of two pKa values (pKa1 = 2.98, pKa2 = 2.89) and establishment of the corresponding distribution diagram. The very low pKa values guarantee that above pH equal to 4 the ligand is mostly present in the fully non-protonated and non-fluorescent form L. The study of the interaction of the ligand with iron(III) was performed in DMSO and DMSO–H2O to exclude the influence of pH and due to the low solubility of the compound. The results indicate that the presence of iron(III) triggers the opening of the spirolactam form of the ligand and the maximum intensity obtained at a metal:ligand ratio of 1:2 is consistent with the formation of an iron(III) complex with the tridentate ligand.
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