ConspectusTo reduce global reliance on fossil fuels, new renewable sources of energy that can be used with the current infrastructure are required. Biomass represents a major source of renewable carbon based fuel; however, the high oxygen content (∼40%) limits its use as a conventional fuel. To utilize biomass as an energy source, not only with current infrastructure, but for maximum energy return, the oxygen content must be reduced. One method to achieve this is to develop selective catalytic methods to cleave C-O bonds commonly found in biomass (aliphatic and aromatic ethers and esters) for the eventual removal of oxygen in the form of volatile H2O or carboxylic acids. Once selective methods of C-O cleavage are understood and perfected, application to processing real biomass feedstocks such as lignin can be undertaken.This Laboratory previously reported that recyclable "green" lanthanide triflates are excellent catalysts for C-O bond-forming hydroalkoxylation reactions. Based on the virtues of microscopic reversibility, the same lanthanide triflate catalyst should catalyze the reverse C-O cleavage process, retrohydroalkoxylation, to yield an alcohol and an alkene. However, ether C-O bond-forming (retrohydroalkoxylation) to form an alcohol and alkene is endothermic. Guided by quantum chemical analysis, our strategy is to couple endothermic, in tandem, ether C-O bond cleavage with exothermic alkene hydrogenation, thereby leveraging the combined catalytic cycles thermodynamically to form an overall energetically favorable C-O cleavage reaction.This Account reviews recent developments on thermodynamically leveraged tandem catalysis for ether and more recently, ester C-O bond cleavage undertaken at Northwestern University. First, the fundamentals of lanthanide-catalyzed hydroelementation are reviewed, with particular focus on ether C-O bond formation (hydroalkoxylation). Next, the reverse C-O cleavage/retrohydroalkoxylation processes enabled by tandem catalysis are discussed for both ether and ester C-O bond cleavage, including mechanistic and computational analysis. This is followed by recent results using this tandem catalytic strategy toward biomass relevant substrates, including work deconstructing acetylated lignin models, and the production of biodiesel from triglycerides, while bypassing the production of undesired glycerol for more valuable C3 products such as diesters (precursors to diols) in up to 47% selectivity. This Account concludes with future prospects for using this tandem catalytic system under real biomass processing conditions.
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