The Organometallic Reader

Dedicated to the teaching and learning of modern organometallic chemistry.

Quirky Ligand Substitutions

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Over the years, a variety of “quirky” substitution methods have been developed. All of these have the common goal of facilitating substitution in complexes that would otherwise be inert. It’s an age-old challenge: how can we turn a stable complex into something unstable enough to react? Photochemical excitation, oxidation/reduction, and radical chains all do the job, and have all been well studied. We’ll look at a few examples in this post—remember these methods when simple associative or dissociative substitution won’t get the job done.

Photochemical Substitution

Substitution reactions of dative ligands—most famously, CO—may be facilitated by photochemical excitation. Two examples are shown below. The first reaction yields only monosubstituted product without ultraviolet light, even in the presence of a strongly donating phosphine.

Dissociative photochemical substitutions of CO and dinitrogen.

Dissociative photochemical substitutions of CO and dinitrogen.

All signs point to dissociative mechanisms for these reactions (the starting complexes have 18 total electrons each). Excitation, then, must increase the M–L antibonding character of the complex’s electrons; exactly how this increase in antibonding character happens has been a matter of some debate. Originally, the prevailing explanation was that the LUMO bears M–L antibonding character, and excitation kicks an electron up from the HOMO to the LUMO, encouraging cleavage of the M–L bond. A more recent, more subtle explanation backed by calculations supports the involvement of a metal-to-ligand charge-transfer state along with the “classical” ligand-field excited state.


Imagine a screaming baby without her pacifier—that’s a nice analogy for an odd-electron organometallic complex. Complexes bearing 17 and 19 total electrons are much more reactive toward substitution than their even-electron counterparts. Single-electron oxidation and reduction (“popping out the pacifier,” if you will) can thus be used to efficiently turn on substitution. As you might expect, oxidation and reduction work best on electron-rich and electron-poor complexes, respectively. The Mn complex in the oxidative example below, for instance, includes a strongly donating MeCp group (not shown).

Oxidation accelerates substitution in electron-rich complexes, through a chain process.

Oxidation accelerates substitution in electron-rich complexes through a chain process.

Reduction works well for electron-poor metal carbonyl complexes, which are happy to accept an additional electron. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Michael Evans

June 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Dissociative Ligand Substitution

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Associative substitution is unlikely for saturated, 18-electron complexes—coordination of another ligand would produce a 20-electron intermediate. For 18-electron complexes, dissociative substitution mechanisms involving 16-electron intermediates are more likely. In a slow step with positive entropy of activation, the departing ligand leaves, generating a coordinatively unsaturated intermediate. The incoming ligand then enters the coordination sphere of the metal to generate the product. For the remainder of this post, we’ll focus on the kinetics of the reaction and the nature of the unsaturated intermediate (which influences the stereochemistry of the reaction). The reverse of the first step, re-coordination of the departing ligand (rate constant k–1), is often competitive with dissociation.

A general scheme for dissociative ligand substitution.

A general scheme for dissociative ligand substitution. There’s more to the intermediate than meets the eye!

Reaction Kinetics

Let’s begin with the general situation in which k1 and k–1 are similar in magnitude. Since k1 is rate limiting, k2 is assumed to be much larger than k1 and k–1. Most importantly, we need to assume that variation in the concentration of the unsaturated intermediate is essentially zero. This is called the steady state approximation, and it allows us to set up an equation that relates reaction rate to observable concentrations Hold onto that for a second; first, we can use step 2 to establish a preliminary rate expression.

(1)     rate = k2[LnM–◊][Li]

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Let’s Get Together: Associative Ligand Substitution

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Despite the sanctity of the 18-electron rule to many students of organometallic chemistry, a wide variety of stable complexes possess fewer than 18 total electrons at the metal center. Perhaps the most famous examples of these complexes are 14- and 16-electron complexes of group 10 metals involved in cross-coupling reactions. Ligand substitution in complexes of this class typically occurs via an associative mechanism, involving approach of the incoming ligand to the complex before departure of the leaving group. If we keep this principle in mind, it seems easy enough to predict when ligand substitution is likely to be associative. But how can we spot an associative mechanism in experimental data, and what are some of the consequences of this mechanism?

The prototypical mechanism of associative ligand substitution.

The prototypical mechanism of associative ligand substitution. The first step is rate-determining.

A typical mechanism for associative ligand substitution is shown above. It should be noted that square pyramidal geometry is also possible for the intermediate, but is less common. Let’s begin with the kinetics of the reaction. Read the rest of this entry »

Ligand Substitution: General Ideas

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Ligand substitution is the first reaction one typically encounters in an organometallic chemistry course. In general, ligand substitution involves the exchange of one ligand for another, with no change in oxidation state at the metal center. The incoming and outgoing ligands may be L- or X-type, but the charge of the complex changes if the ligand type changes. Keep charge conservation in mind when writing out ligand substitutions.

Charge is conserved in ligand substitution reactions. Four general types of substitution are shown here.

Charge is conserved in ligand substitution reactions. Four general types of substitution are shown here—note the X-for-L and L-for-X types.

How do we know when a ligand substitution reaction is favorable? The thermodynamics of the reaction depend on the relative strength of the two metal-ligand bonds, and the stability of the departing and incoming ligands (or salt sof the ligand, if they’re X type). It’s often useful to think of X-for-X substitutions like acid-base reactions, with the metal and spectator ligands serving as a “glorified proton.” Like acid-base equilibria in organic chemistry, we look to the relative stability of the two charged species (the free ligands) to draw conclusions. Of course, we don’t necessarily need to rely just on primal thermodynamics to drive ligand substitution reactions. Photochemistry, neighboring-group participation, and other tools can facilitate otherwise difficult substitutions.

Ligand substitution is characterized by a continuum of mechanisms bound by associative (A) and dissociative (D) extremes. At the associative extreme, the incoming ligand first forms a bond to the metal, then the departing ligand takes its lone pair and leaves. At the dissociative extreme, the order of events is opposite—the departing ligand leaves, then the incoming ligand comes in. Associative substitution is common for 16-electron complexes (like d8 complexes of Ni, Pd, and Pt), while dissociative substitution is the norm for 18-electron complexes. Then again, reality is often more complicated than these extremes. In some cases, evidence is available for simultaneous dissociation and association, and this mechanism has been given the name interchange (IA or ID).

Over the next few posts, we’ll explore ligand substitution reactions and mechanisms in detail. We’d like to be able to (a) predict whether a mechanism is likely to be associative or dissociative; (b) propose a reasonable mechanism from given experimental data; and (c) describe the results we’d expect given a particular mechanism. Keep these goals in mind as you learn the theoretical and experimental nuts and bolts of substitution reactions.

Written by Michael Evans

May 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm

The trans/cis Effects & Influences

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The trans effect is an ancient but venerable observation. First noted by Chernyaev in 1926, the trans effect and its conceptual siblings (the trans influence, cis influence, and cis effect) are easy enough to comprehend. That is, it’s simple enough to know what they are. To understand why they are, on the other hand, is much more difficult. I call ideas like this—which, by the way, pop up often in organometallic chemistry—”icebergs.” Their definitions are simple and easy to see; their explanations can be complex.

Definitions & Examples

Let’s begin with definitions: what is the trans effect? There’s some confusion on this point, so we need to be careful. The trans effect proper, which is often called the kinetic trans effect, refers to the observation that certain ligands increase the rate of ligand substitution when positioned trans to the departing ligand. The key word in that last sentence is “rate”—the trans effect proper is a kinetic effect. The trans influence refers to the impact of a ligand on the length of the bond trans to it in the ground state of a complex. The key phrase there is “ground state”—this is a thermodynamic effect, so it’s sometimes called the thermodynamic trans effect. Adding to the insanity, cis effects and cis influences have also been observed. Evidently, ligands may also influence the kinetics or thermodynamics of their cis neighbors. All of these phenomena are independent of the metal center, but do depend profoundly on the geometry of the metal (more on that shortly).

Kinetic trans and cis effects are shown in the figure below. In both cases, we see that X1 exhibits a stronger effect than X2. The geometries shown are those for which each effect is most commonly observed. The metals and oxidation states shown are prototypical.

The kinetic trans and cis effects in action. X1 is the stronger (trans/cis)-effect ligand in these examples.

The kinetic trans and cis effects in action. X1 is the stronger (trans/cis)-effect ligand in these examples.

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What is an Open Coordination Site?

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The concept of coordinative unsaturation can be confusing for the student of organometallic chemistry, but recognizing open coordination sites in OM complexes is a critical skill. Why? Let’s begin with a famous example of coordinative unsaturation from organic chemistry.

An analogy from organic chemistry. The reactivity of the carbene flows from its open coordination site.

An analogy from organic chemistry. The reactivity of the carbene flows from its open coordination site.

Carbenes are both nucleophilic and electrophilic, but the essence of their electrophilicity comes from the fact that they don’t have their fair share of electrons (8). They have not been saturated with electrons—carbenes want more! To achieve saturation, carbenes may inherit a pair of electrons from a σ bond (σ-bond insertion), π bond (cyclopropanation), or lone pair (ylide formation). Notice that, simply by spotting coordinative unsaturation, we’ve been able to fully describe the carbene’s reactivity! We can do the same with organometallic complexes—open coordination sites suggest specific reactivity patterns. That’s why understanding coordinative unsaturation and recognizing its telltale sign (the open coordination site) are essential skills for the organometallic chemist. Read the rest of this entry »

Epic Ligand Survey: σ Complexes

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Epic Ligand Survey: Sigma ComplexesIn this post, we’ll investigate ligands that, shockingly enough, bind through their σ electrons in an L-type fashion. This binding mode depends as much on the metal center as it does on the ligand itself—to see why, we need only recognize that σ complexes look like intermediates in concerted oxidative additions. With a slight reorganization of electrons and geometry, an L-type σ ligand can become two X-type ligands. Why, then, are σ complexes stable? How can we control the ratio of σ complex to X2 complex in a given situation? How does complexation of a σ bond change the ligand’s properties? We’ll address these questions and more in this post.

General Properties

The first thing to realize about σ complexes is that they are highly sensitive to steric bulk. Any old σ bond won’t do; hydrogen at one end of the binding bond or the other (or both) is necessary. The best studied σ complexes involve dihydrogen (H2), so let’s start there.

Mildly backbonding metals may bind dihydrogen “side on.” Like side-on binding in π complexes, there are two important orbital interactions at play here: σH–Hdσ and dπ→σ*H–H. Dihydrogen complexes can “tautomerize” to (H)2 isomers through oxidative addition of the H–H bond to the metal.

Orbital interactions and L-X2 equilibrium in σ complexes.

Orbital interactions and L-X2 equilibrium in σ complexes.

H2 binding in an L-type fashion massively acidifies the ligand—changes in pKa of over thirty units are known! Analogous acidifications of X–H bonds, which we touched on in a previous post, rarely exhibit ΔpKa > 5. What gives? What’s causing the different behavior of X–H and H–H ligands? The key is to consider the conjugate base of the ligand—in particular, how much it’s stabilized by a metal center relative to the corresponding free anion. The principle here is analogous to the famous dictum of organic chemistry: consider charged species when making acid/base comparisons. Stabilization of the unhindered anion H by a metal is much greater than stabilization of larger, more electronegative anions like HO– and NH2– by a metal. As a result, it’s more favorable to remove a proton from metal-complexed H2 than from larger, more electronegative X–H ligands. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael Evans

April 10, 2012 at 10:58 am