The Development and Catalytic Uses of N-Heterocyclic Carbene Gold Complexes

Steven P. Nolan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

564 Citations (Scopus)


Gold has emerged as a powerful synthetic tool in the chemist's arsenal. From the early use of inorganic salts such as AuCl and AuCl3 as catalysts, the field has evolved to explore ligands that fine-tune reactivity, stability, and, more recently, selectivity in gold-mediated processes. Substrates generally contain alkenes or alkynes, and they usually involve straightforward protocols in air with solvents that can oftentimes be of technical grade. The actual catalytic species is the putative cationic gold(I) complex [Au(L)](+) (where L is a phosphorus-based species or N-heterocydic carbene, NHC). The early gold systems bearing phosphine and phosphite ligands provided important transformations and served as useful mechanistic probes. More recently, the use of NHCs as ligands for gold has rapidly gained in popularity. These two-electron donor ligands combine strong a-donating properties with a steric profile that allows for both stabilization of the metal center and enhancement of its catalytic activity. As a result, the gold NHC complexes have been used as well-defined precatalysts and have permitted the isolation of reactive single-component systems that are now used instead of the initial [Au(L)Cl]/silver salt method. Because some are now commercially available, NHC-containing gold(I) complexes are gathering Increasing interest.

In this Account, we describe the chronological development of this chemistry in our laboratories, highlighting the advantages of this family of gold complexes and reviewing their synthesis and applications in catalysis. We first outline the syntheses, which are straightforward. The complexes generally exhibit high stability, allowing for indefinite storage and easy handling. We next consider catalysis, particularly examining efficacy in cycloisomerization, other skeletal rearrangements, addition of water to alkynes and nitriles, and C-H bond activation. These processes are quite atom-economical, and in the most recent C-H reactions the only byproduct is water. State-of-the-art methodology now involves single-component catalysts, precluding the need for costly silver co-catalysts. Remarkably, the use of an NHC as a supporting ligand has permitted the isolation of [Au(L)(S)](+) species (where S is a solvent molecule such as a nitrile), which can act as single-component catalysts. Some improvements are still needed, as the single components are most often synthesized with a silver reagent. Owing to the stabilizing effect of NHC coordination, some NHC-containing systems can catalyze extremely challenging reactions (at temperatures as high as 140 degrees C) and react at very low loadings of gold (ppm levels). Our latest developments deal with C-H bond functionalization and hold great promise.

We dose with a selection of Important developments by the community with gold NHC complexes. As demonstrated by the turns and twists encountered during our own Journey in the gold NHC venture, the chemistry described here, combining fundamental organometallic, catalytic, and organic methodology, remains rich in opportunities, especially considering that only a handful of gold(I) architectures has been studied. We hope this Account will encourage young researchers to explore this emerging area, as the adage the "more you do, the more you have to do" surely holds true in gold-mediated catalysis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-100
Number of pages10
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2011




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