The mechanism of electrochemical reduction of acetophenone in 1-butyl-3-methylimidazolium tetrafluroborate ([BMIM][BF4]) under nitrogen (N2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) atmospheres have been investigated using transient voltammetry, steady-state voltammetry, bulk electrolysis and numerical simulation. Under a N2 atmosphere, acetophenone undergoes a one-electron reduction to the radical anion followed by rapid dimerization reactions with an apparent rate constant of 1.0 × 106 M−1s−1. In contrast, under a CO2 atmosphere, the electrochemical reduction of acetophenone is an overall two-electron transfer chemically irreversible process with the final electrolysis product being 1-phenylethanol, instead of the anticipated 2-hydroxy-2-phenylpropionic acid resulting from an electrocarboxylation reaction. A proton coupled electron transfer pathway leading to the formation of 1-phenylethanol requires the presence of a sufficiently strong proton donor which is not available in neat [BMIM][BF4]. However, the presence of CO2 enhances the C-2 hydrogen donating ability of [BMIM]+ due to strong complex formation between the deprotonated form of [BMIM]+, N-heterocyclic carbene, and CO2, resulting in a thermodynamically favorable proton coupled electron transfer pathway.
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