Controlling the Hydrophilicity of the Electrochemical Interface to Modulate the Oxygen-Atom Transfer in Electrocatalytic Epoxidation Reactions


The electrocatalytic epoxidation of alkenes at heterogeneous catalysts using water as the sole oxygen source is a promising safe route toward the sustainable synthesis of epoxides, which are essential building blocks in organic chemistry. However, the physico-chemical parameters governing the oxygen-atom transfer to the alkene and the impact of the electrolyte structure on the epoxidation reaction are yet to be understood. Here, we study the electrocatalytic epoxidation of cyclooctene at the surface of gold in hybrid organic/aqueous mixtures using acetonitrile (ACN) solvent. Gold was selected, as in ACN/water electrolytes gold oxide is formed by reactivity with water at potentials less anodic than the oxygen evolution reaction (OER). This unique property allows us to demonstrate that a sacrificial mechanism is responsible for cyclooctene epoxidation at metallic gold surfaces, proceeding through cyclooctene activation, while epoxidation at gold oxide shares similar reaction intermediates with the OER and proceeds via the activation of water. More importantly, we show that the hydrophilicity of the electrode/electrolyte interface can be tuned by changing the nature of the supporting salt cation, hence affecting the reaction selectivity. At low overpotential, hydrophilic interfaces formed by using strong Lewis acid cations are found to favor gold passivation. Instead, hydrophobic interfaces created by the use of large organic cations favor the oxidation of cyclooctene and the formation of epoxide. Our study directly demonstrates how tuning the hydrophilicity of electrochemical interfaces can improve both the yield and selectivity of anodic reactions at the surface of heterogeneous catalysts.

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Supplementary material

Supporting Information
Additional experimental (cyclic voltammetry, rotating ring disk electrode measurements, electrolysis curves, EQCM, ICP-MS) and MD simulations data to support the results of the main text (Figures S1-S20, Tables S1 to S4).