Tailoring ionic liquid catalysts: structure, acidity and catalytic activity of protonic ionic liquids based on anionic clusters, [(HSO4)(H2SO4)x]− (x = 0, 1, or 2)
Aiming at inexpensive Brønsted-acidic ionic liquids, suitable for industrial-scale catalysis, a family of protonic ionic liquids based on nitrogen bases and sulfuric acid has been developed. Variation of the molar ratio of sulfuric acid, χH2SO4, was used to tune acidity. The liquid structure was studied using 1H NMR and IR spectroscopies, revealing the existence of hydrogen-bonded clusters, [(HSO4)(H2SO4)]−, for χH2SO4 > 0.50. Acidity, quantified by Gutmann Acceptor Number (AN), was found to be closely related to the liquid structure. The ionic liquids were employed as acid catalysts in a model reaction; Fischer esterification of acetic acid with 1-butanol. The reaction rate depended on two factors; for χH2SO4 > 0.50, the key parameter was acidity (expressed as AN value), while for χH2SO4 > 0.50 it was the mass transport (solubility of starting materials in the ionic liquid phase). Building on this insight, the ionic liquid catalyst and reaction conditions have been chosen. Conversion values of over 95% were achieved under exceptionally mild conditions, and using an inexpensive ionic liquid, which could be recycled up to eight times without diminution in conversion or selectivity. It has been demonstrated how structural studies can underpin rational design and development of an ionic liquid catalyst, and in turn lead to a both greener and economically viable process.