Nitrogen reduction and functionalization by a multimetallic uranium nitride complex

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A complex containing two uranium ions and three potassium ions, held together by a nitride group and a flexible molecular framework, can reduce and functionalize N2 under mild conditions.

Molecular nitrogen (N2) is cheap and widely available, but its unreactive nature is a challenge when attempting to functionalize it under mild conditions with other widely available substrates (such as carbon monoxide, CO) to produce value-added compounds. Biological N2 fixation can do this, but the industrial Haber-Bosch process for ammonia production operates under harsh conditions (450 degrees Celsius and 300 bar), even though both processes are thought to involve multimetallic catalytic sites1,2. And although molecular complexes capable of binding and even reducing N2 under mild conditions are known, with co-operativity between metal centres considered crucial for the N2 reduction step1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14, the multimetallic species involved are usually not well defined, and further transformation of N2-binding complexes to achieve N-H or N-C bond formation is rare2,6,8,10,15,16. Haber noted17, before an iron-based catalyst was adopted for the industrial Haber-Bosch process, that uranium and uranium nitride materials are very effective heterogeneous catalysts for ammonia production from N2. However, few examples of uranium complexes binding N2 are known18,19,20,21,22, and soluble uranium complexes capable of transforming N2 into ammonia or organonitrogen compounds have not yet been identified. Here we report the four-electron reduction of N2 under ambient conditions by a fully characterized complex with two UIII ions and three K+ centres held together by a nitride group and a flexible metalloligand framework. The addition of H2 and/or protons, or CO to the resulting Symbol complex results in the complete cleavage of N2 with concomitant N2 functionalization through N-H or N-C bond-forming reactions. These observations establish that a molecular uranium complex can promote the stoichiometric transformation of N2 into NH3 or cyanate, and that a flexible, electron-rich, multimetallic, nitride-bridged core unit is a promising starting point for the design of molecular complexes capable of cleaving and functionalizing N2 under mild conditions.

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