When gold dimensions are reduced to a few nanometers, gold exhibits unique properties in oxidation catalysis. By performing selective oxidations of hydrocarbons at low temperature (typically below 100°C), gold nanoparticles achieve high selectivities at levels of conversion usually obtained at higher temperature. This is attributed to the activation modes of molecular oxygen on gold. Indeed, unlike platinum, gold does not chemisorb oxygen at its operating temperature. On the other hand, it seems to catalyze the formation of reduced and active dioxygen species in the presence of a reductant (hydrogen or hydrocarbon) and the decomposition of organic hydroperoxides. It thus allows using an alkane as a promoter of the epoxidation of an alkene. In the liquid phase, this translates into an ultra-selective radical mechanism, initiated and controlled by gold particles, which uses oxygen from the air at atmospheric pressure as oxidant and which can be generalized to other types of oxidations. This unique activity at low temperature, which can be optimized upon a thorough control of the surface chemistry of the material, makes gold a catalyst of choice to reconsider the oxidative transformations of petrochemicals in an eco-efficient way.
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