How Low Does Iron Go? Chasing the Active Species in Fe-Catalyzed Cross-Coupling Reactions

Robin B. Bedford*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

184 Citations (Scopus)


The catalytic cross-coupling reactions of organic halides or related substrates with organometallic nucleophiles form the cornerstone of many carbon-carbon bond-forming processes. While palladium-based catalysts typically mediate such reactions, there are increasing concerns about the long-term sustainability of palladium in synthesis. This is due to the high cost of palladium, coupled with its low natural abundance, environmentally deleterious extraction (∼6 g of metal are produced per ton of ore), toxicity, and competition for its use from the automotive and consumer electronics sectors. Therefore, there is a growing interest in replacing palladium-based catalysts with those incorporating more earth-abundant elements. With its low cost, high natural abundance, and low toxicity, iron makes a particularly appealing alternative, and accordingly, the development of iron-catalyzed cross-coupling is undergoing explosive growth. However, our understanding of the mechanisms that underpin the iron-based catalytic cycles is still very much in its infancy. Mechanistic insight into catalytic reactions is not only academically important but also allows us to maximize the efficiency of processes or even to develop entirely new transformations. Key to the development of robust mechanistic models for cross-coupling is knowing the lowest oxidation state in the cycle. Once this is established, we can explore subsequent redox processes and build the catalytic manifold. Until we know with confidence what the lowest oxidation state is, any cycles proposed are largely just guesswork. To date, Fe(-II), Fe(-I), Fe(0), Fe(I), and Fe(II) have been proposed as contenders for the lowest-oxidation-state species in the cycle in iron-catalyzed cross-coupling; the aim of this Account is to pull together the various pieces of evidence in support, or otherwise, of each of these suggestions in turn. There currently exists no direct evidence that oxidation states below Fe(0) are active in the catalytic cycle. Meanwhile, the reactivity required of the lowest-oxidation-state species has been observed with model compounds in higher oxidation states, implying that there is no need to invoke such low oxidation states. While subzero-valent complexes do indeed act as effective precatalysts, it is important to recognize that this tells us that they are efficiently converted to an active catalyst but says nothing about the oxidation states of the species in the catalytic cycle. Zero-valent heterogeneous iron nanoparticles can be formed under typical catalytic conditions, but there is no evidence to suggest that homogeneous Fe(0) complexes can be produced under comparable conditions. It seems likely that the zero-valent nanoparticles act as a reservoir for soluble higher-oxidation-state species. Fe(II) complexes can certainly be formed under catalytically relevant conditions, and when bulky nucleophilic coupling partners are exploited, potential intermediates can be isolated. However, the bulky reagents act as poor proxies for most nucleophiles used in cross-coupling, as they give Fe(II) organometallic intermediates that are kinetically stabilized with respect to reductive elimination. When more realistic substrates are exploited, reduction or disproportionation to Fe(I) is widely observed, and while it still has not been conclusively proved, this oxidation state currently represents a likely candidate for the lowest one active in many iron-catalyzed cross-coupling processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1485-1493
Number of pages9
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2015


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