Hydrogen bonding in the recovery of phenols and methyl-t-butyl ether : molecular modeling and calorimetry

R. Cuypers

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The purification of waste water is very important, for clean potable water is a common good and a necessity. Surface water purification is nowadays carried out on a massive industrial scale, and clean water is at our disposal virtually everywhere and always. However, cleaning industrial waste water can be a difficult task. Although apolar and slightly polar compounds can be removed from water relatively easily e.g. by extraction to an apolar phase, more polar pollutants like phenol and methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE), the two main compounds that this thesis deals with, cannot be removed as easily. A more effective method is therefore needed to clean water that is contaminated with either phenol or MTBE.
Solvent-Impregnated Resins (SIRs) are porous polymer beads containing apolar organic extractant liquids. They are used as three-phase separation systems. When brought into contact with a SIR, a solute will preferentially partition from the aqueous phase into the impregnated solvent phase. A drawback to the use of solely the organic extraction liquid in SIRs is the limited solubility of more polar compounds like phenols and ethers in such a medium. In order to enhance extraction, complex-forming extractants can be added to the organic solvent. By means of complex formation inside the organic solvent, the overall equilibrium distribution can be shifted towards the SIR, with a concomitant enhancement of the extraction efficiency. A tight binding of the pollutant molecules to the extractant will eventually ensure high distribution coefficients. However, a moderate binding strength would enable a relatively easy regeneration of the complexing agent after a binding event, enabling multiple uses of the same compound.
In this thesis hydrogen-bond (H-bond) complexation, a specific and strong yet reversible way of binding is investigated for phenol recovery and MTBE recovery from aqueous environments, involving the use of organic complexing agents that can be used inside the SIR to enhance the extraction. Potentially interesting compounds were investigated on a molecular scale by quantum chemical modeling methods and subsequent synthesis and physical characterization by primarily calorimetric means. H-bond complex formation has been evaluated and the important parameters determining the binding process have been described.
After a general introduction in Chapter 1, Chapters 2 through 4 describe phenol complexation by several different classes of complexing agents. In Chapter 2, the binding of phenol and thiophenol by phosphine oxides, phosphates, and their thio-analogs was investigated. Modeling experiments, isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC) measurements, and liquid-liquid extraction experiments showed that, in principle, the binding affinity of the oxide compounds for phenol is high, whereas the sulfide compounds show only low affinity. In particular, the binding behavior of tri-n-octylphosphine oxide towards phenol and a series of electron-withdrawing group (EWG)-substituted phenols was studied, both in the presence and absence of water in the system. It was found that the presence of water in the system – as can be expected in industrial applications – yields lower binding affinities by as much as 60 %, but the binding stoichiometry remained specific and 1 : 1 complexes were still found. Electronic and steric effects were shown to play an important role in phenol binding in the investigated environment.
In Chapter 3, these investigations were extended to the modeling of the full homologous series of mono-, di- and tri-substituted phosphine oxides and phosphates and their thio-analogs. Different modeling methods were used to investigate both structural and electronic elements. Dimethylphosphate was found to form the strongest complexes to the investigated phenols, but because this compound forms very strong homo-dimers in solution it cannot be used as an effective extractant. The SCS-MP2 method, that was relatively unexplored for H-bonding until now, was found to yield very accurate energy predictions, whereas the CBS-Q method was found to predict false binding affinities. Solvent effects are shown to immensely influence the binding behavior.
Another, even stronger group of H-bond acceptors, amine-N-oxides, was investigated as described in Chapter 4. The binding properties for phenol and thiophenol with three different amine-N-oxides yielded very high binding affinities (up to 30 times higher than for the phosphine oxide compounds). Introduction of EWGs in the amine-N-oxides was shown to yield markedly lower binding affinities towards phenols, providing a handle to fine-tune the interaction and facilitating easier regeneration of the complexing agent in future SIR applications. Solvent effects and the influence of water in the system were investigated, and it was shown that they both influence the phenol binding strength. The results in Chapters 2 through 4 show that phosphates, phosphine oxides, and amine-N-oxides could all be used in future SIR extraction systems, and the choice between these classes of compounds can be made based on more detailed considerations.
MTBE binding by several complexing agents was described in Chapter 5. A detailed modeling study of a number of different substituted phenols for MTBE binding was carried out, and the influence of solvents on the binding behavior was investigated, using a.o. the recently developed M06-2X functional and SMD solvent model. The investigated complexing agents were found to show moderate binding affinities to MTBE with binding strengths being closely linked to the acidity of the extractant. Steric effects and a proper consideration of entropic effects are also found to be important to yield successful binding of MTBE. In combination with the existing MTBE distribution coefficient for apolar phases, these moderate binding affinities were found to be able to enhance extraction, in principle, up to the point where it becomes industrially relevant to use such extractants in SIR-based extractions.
Finally, in Chapter 6 the performed research is reviewed, and conclusions, recommendations and a wider perspective for future scientific challenges are given.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Zuilhof, Han, Promotor
  • Sudhölter, Ernst, Promotor
Award date13 Oct 2010
Place of Publication[S.l.
Print ISBNs9789085857754
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • waste water treatment
  • removal
  • phenol
  • ethers
  • derivatives
  • resins
  • extraction

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