M. Bocus

Insights into the mechanism and reactivity of zeolite catalyzed alkylphenol dealkylation

M. Bocus, V. Van Speybroeck
ACS Catalysis
12, 22, 14227–14242


In the stride toward the production of low-carbon-footprint commodity chemicals, the development of a complete wood biorefinery plays a pivotal role. The lignin fraction of wood can be depolymerized and demethoxylated mainly into 4-alkylphenols. These phenolic compounds can further catalytically be C-dealkylated within the H-ZSM-5 zeolite at relatively high temperatures and in the presence of steam, producing phenol and olefins. Experimentally, the dealkylation reaction was found to have two striking features: first, different reactants possess very different reactivity. 4-Ethylphenol (4-EP) is somehow less reactive than 4-n-propylphenol (4-n-PP), which is in turn much less reactive than 4-isopropylphenol (4-iso-PP). Second, cofeeding of steam in the reaction mixture was necessary to prevent rapid and reversible catalyst deactivation. Herein, a combination of static and dynamic density functional theory (DFT) simulations is used to unravel the molecular and mechanistic origin of these observations. Free-energy profiles obtained from static calculations confirm the experimentally observed reactivity sequence, where our computations show that the secondary nature of the alkyl carbon involved in 4-iso-PP dealkylation strongly stabilizes the respective transition states. To investigate the effect of water on the mobility of the reactive species and their interaction with the active site, we investigated the diffusion of phenol along the H-ZSM-5 straight channel in the presence of water loadings from 0 to 3 molecules per zeolite unit cell. We show that water has a strongly beneficial effect in promoting desorption and diffusion of phenol away from the Brønsted acid site through competitive adsorption and by the formation of hydrogen bond chains with the diffusing phenol. This effect could lead to a shorter residence time inside the zeolite, preventing active site poisoning and condensation to bulkier biphenylether moieties.

Mechanistic characterization of zeolite-catalyzed aromatic electrophilic substitution at realistic operating conditions

M. Bocus, L. Vanduyfhuys, F. De Proft, B.M. Weckhuysen, V. Van Speybroeck
JACS Au (Journal of the American Chemical Society)
2, 2, 502-514


Zeolite-catalyzed benzene ethylation is an important industrial reaction, as it is the first step in the production of styrene for polymer manufacturing. Furthermore, it is a prototypical example of aromatic electrophilic substitution, a key reaction in the synthesis of many bulk and fine chemicals. Despite extensive research, the reaction mechanism and the nature of elusive intermediates at realistic operating conditions is not properly understood. More in detail, the existence of the elusive arenium ion (better known as Wheland complex) formed upon electrophilic attack on the aromatic ring is still a matter of debate. Temperature effects and the presence of protic guest molecules such as water are expected to impact the reaction mechanism and lifetime of the reaction intermediates. Herein, we used enhanced sampling ab initio molecular dynamics simulations to investigate the complete mechanism of benzene ethylation with ethene and ethanol in the H-ZSM-5 zeolite. We show that both the stepwise and concerted mechanisms are active at reaction conditions and that the Wheland intermediate spontaneously appears as a shallow minimum in the free energy surface after the electrophilic attack on the benzene ring. Addition of water enhances the protonation kinetics by about 1 order of magnitude at coverages of one water molecule per Brønsted acidic site. In the fully solvated regime, an overstabilization of the BAS as hydronium ion occurs and the rate enhancement disappears. The obtained results give critical atomistic insights in the role of water to selectively tune the kinetics of protonation reactions in zeolites.

Gold Open Access

Shape-selective C–H activation of aromatics to biarylic compounds using molecular palladium in zeolites

J. Vercammen, M. Bocus, S. E. Neale, A. Bugaev, P. Tomkins, J. Hajek, S. Van Minnebruggen, A. Soldatov, A. Krajnc, G. Mali, V. Van Speybroeck, D. De Vos
Nature Catalysis
3, 1002-1009


The selective activation of inert C–H bonds has emerged as a promising tool for avoiding the use of wasteful traditional coupling reactions. Oxidative coupling of simple aromatics allows for a cost-effective synthesis of biaryls. However, utilization of this technology is severely hampered by poor regioselectivity and by the limited stability of state-of-the-art homogeneous Pd catalysts. Here, we show that confinement of cationic Pd in the pores of a zeolite allows for the shape-selective C–H activation of simple aromatics without a functional handle or electronic bias. For instance, out of six possible isomers, 4,4′-bitolyl is produced with high shape selectivity (80%) in oxidative toluene coupling on Pd-Beta. Not only is a robust, heterogeneous catalytic system obtained, but this concept is also set to control the selectivity in transition-metal-catalysed arene C–H activation through spatial confinement in zeolite pores.

Insight into the effects of confined hydrocarbon species on the lifetime of methanol conversion catalysts

I. Lezcano-Gonzalez, E. Campbell, A.E.J. Hoffman, M. Bocus, I.V. Sazanovich, M. Towrie, M. Agote-Aran, E.K. Gibson, A. Greenaway, K. De Wispelaere, V. Van Speybroeck, A.M. Beale
Nature Materials
19, 1081–1087


The methanol-to-hydrocarbons reaction refers collectively to a series of important industrial catalytic processes to produce either olefins or gasoline. Mechanistically, methanol conversion proceeds through a ‘pool’ of hydrocarbon species. For the methanol-to-olefins process, these species can be delineated broadly into ‘desired’ lighter olefins and ‘undesired’ heavier fractions that cause deactivation in a matter of hours. The crux in further catalyst optimization is the ability to follow the formation of carbonaceous species during operation. Here, we report the combined results of an operando Kerr-gated Raman spectroscopic study with state-of-the-art operando molecular simulations, which allowed us to follow the formation of hydrocarbon species at various stages of methanol conversion. Polyenes are identified as crucial intermediates towards formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, with their fate determined largely by the zeolite topology. Notably, we provide the missing link between active and deactivating species, which allows us to propose potential design rules for future-generation catalysts.

The influence of nuclear quantum effects on proton hopping kinetics in the H-SSZ-13 zeolite through ab initio derived machine learning potentials


Conference / event / venue 

Noordwijkerhout,The Netherlands
Monday, 9 May, 2022 to Wednesday, 11 May, 2022


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