Reactivity descriptors in acid catalysis: acid strength, proton affinity and host–guest interactions
Brønsted acids mediate chemical transformations via proton transfer to bound species and interactions between the conjugate anion and bound cationic intermediates and transition states that are also stabilized by van der Waals forces within voids of molecular dimensions in inorganic hosts. This Feature Article describes the relevant descriptors of reactivity in terms of the properties of acids and molecules that determine their ability to donate and accept protons and to reorganize their respective charges to optimize their interactions at bound states. The deprotonation energy (DPE) of the acids and the protonation energy (Eprot) of the gaseous analogs of bound intermediates and transition states reflect their respective properties as species present at non-interacting distances. These properties accurately describe the reactivity of acids of a given type, such as polyoxometalates (POM) with a given type of addenda atom but different central atoms and heterosilicates, for different families of reactions. They do not fully capture, however, differences among acid types (e.g., Mo and W POM, heterosilicates, mineral acids) for diverse types of chemical transformations (e.g., elimination, isomerization, dimerization, condensation). The incompleteness of such descriptors reflects their inability to describe how protonated molecular species and conjugate anions restructure their respective charges when present as a binding pair at interacting distances. Such interaction energies represent electrostatic forces that depend on charge distributions in the cations and anions and the ability to reorganize the distributions to maximize the interactions. In the case of deprotonation, the electrostatic and charge reorganization components of DPE for various acids solely reflect the ability of the conjugate anion to accept and distribute the negative charge, a characteristic unique of each type of solid acid and specifically of the composition of its extended conjugate anion framework. The energy required to accept and rearrange the positive charge in bound intermediates and transition states reflects, in turn, their respective ability to recover the ionic and covalent components of DPE, the energy required to detach proton from conjugate anions. The DPE components and the recovery fractions together lead to a modified DPE, which captures only the part of DPE that remains unrecovered by the ion-pair interactions at bound intermediates and transition states, as the unifying descriptor for broad families of acids and reactions. The electrostatic and charge reorganization energies involved in these general descriptors are placed in historical context by assessing their connections to the heuristics of hard–soft acid–base displacements. Further development of these concepts requires benchmarking and extension of electrostatic and reorganization components of energies for a more diverse set of reaction types and acid families and advancement of methods for more efficient calculations of electrostatic interactions. Reactivity descriptors must also account for dispersive interactions between host cavities and guest molecules, requiring a framework analogous to the one described here for ion-pair interactions; these dispersive interactions depend on the fit between their shapes and sizes as well as their “structural stiffness” that determines the ability to modify the shapes of molecules and voids to minimize free energy. Entropy considerations and estimates of their dependence on properties of catalysts and molecules are also required for accurately determining Gibbs free energies that ultimately determine reaction rates.