Organic acid-catalyzed polyurethane formation via a dual-activated mechanism: Unexpected preference of n-activation over o-activation of isocyanates

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A systematic study of acid organocatalysts for the polyaddition of poly(ethylene glycol) to hexamethylene diisocyanate in solution has been performed. Among organic acids evaluated, sulfonic acids were found the most effective for urethane formations even when compared with conventional tin-based catalysts (dibutyltin dilaurate) or 1,8-diazabicyclo[5.4.0]undec-7-ene. In comparison, phosphonic and carboxylic acids showed considerably lower catalytic activities. Furthermore, sulfonic acids gave polyurethanes with higher molecular weights than was observed using traditional catalyst systems. Molecular modeling was conducted to provide mechanistic insight and supported a dual activation mechanism, whereby ternary adducts form in the presence of acid and engender both electrophilic isocyanate activation and nucleophilic alcohol activation through hydrogen bonding. Such a mechanism suggests catalytic activity is a function of not only acid strength but also inherent conjugate base electron density. © 2013 American Chemical Society.