Field of Science

Zn(III)? Not so fast

Chemists love rogues, oddballs which seem to defy the rules and bond, react, and exist on their own terms. The rogues are valuable because they push the boundaries, teach us about new principles of structure and reactivity and challenge coveted preconceptions. One of the most striking rogues in the history of chemistry was the compound xenon hexafluoroplatinate which shattered belief in the non-reactivity of noble gases. Another immensely productive rogue was the first stable carbocation, a species that was considered too unstable to isolate until George Olah surmounted the energy barrier. Some rogues are literal rogues in the sense that they need to be incarcerated in order to prevent their unruly bonds from going haywire; witness the classic taming of cyclobutadiene by Donald Cram. There's no doubt about it; rogues' galleries are shining gems in the chemical establishment.

A couple of months ago it seemed that another minor rogue had made its appearance. Students around the world know that the most stable oxidation state of zinc is +2. The rationale is simple; unlike transition metals like iron and nickel, zinc contains a fully filled d orbital with an electronic configuration of d10s2. It is therefore quite happy to lose its outermost 2s electrons and remain stable. Thus it came as a surprise when a paper detailing theoretical calculations on zinc compounds predicted the existence of a complex with Zn as Zn(III). That fact would have raised the eyebrows of a million freshmen memorizing transition metals trends for their final exams. The existence of the unusual zinc was based on quantum chemical calculations done by Puru Jena's group at VCU and their basic rationale was that a ligand that was oxidizing and electronegative enough would essentially force the metal to donate extra electrons. They seemed to find such a complex in Zn(AuF6)3. On the face of it that would make sense, but it's worth keeping in mind that nature loves filled orbitals; for instance, even a ligand as oxidizing and electronegative as CF3 does not force copper to adopt the +2 state (copper's most stable oxidation state being +1, resulting from its d10s1 configuration).

Now another paper suggests, with ample evidence it seems, that the suspected Zn(III) rogue might be an upstanding chemical citizen after all. Sebastian Riedel's group in Berlin has examined the purported Zn(III) complex and found that not only does zinc adopt its good old +2 oxidation state in the compound, but that the compound would not be thermodynamically stable. They use a quantum chemical method more sophisticated than the previous one and include more relativistic effects. Where does relativity enter the picture, you ask. It turns out that for heavy metals, the speed (in a crude sense) of the d s-electrons can be fast enough to warrant relativistic calculations; indeed, relativistic quantum chemistry has shed light on many commonplace and yet unusual phenomena, like the color of gold and the liquid state of mercury at room temperature. Relativity is not the exclusive domain of physicists.

I am not enough of an expert in quantum chemistry, but it clearly seems from the latest paper that the more accurate calculations which account for finer details of electron correlation and relativistic effects indicate something striking; the purported complex with Zn in the +3 oxidation state would undergo an exothermic reaction. Put simply, it would not be stable and would decompose to a compound with good old Zn(II). For me, a more troubling fact was the structure of the compound published in the original paper. The structure was supposed to be a low-energy minimum but it has two fluorines practically colliding with each other in an unholy, 197 pm, sub-Van der Waals radius squeeze (illustrated above). The present calculations find another low-energy structure existing only 10 kJ/mol above the previous structure that is consistent with a Zn(II) state. Other calculations indicate that the fluorines in the previously proposed structure are best described as radical anions bridging two AuF5 units.

There's other theoretical evidence in there too, along with citations of experimental facts that point to the recalcitrance of Zn to adopt a +3 state. The study seems to be as solid a piece of evidence against Zn(III) as can be obtained using current levels of theory. But the real reason I want to point out this paper is because it illustrates one of the key roles of theory and computation in chemistry; as an invitation to experiment. Just because the complex is thermodynamically unstable does not mean it cannot be isolated under any conditions. One of the great lessons of chemical science in the last forty years has been the fact that given the right conditions almost anything can be synthesized, stored and isolated (Cram's cyclobutadiene again being a case in point) and that the words stable and unstable are highly relative constructions created by an impoverished chemical lexicon.

This tussle between two predictions illustrates the function of theory in chemistry as the ultimate teaser; if I were an experimentalist I would be rubbing my hands in glee, sending my armies of postdocs and graduate students into the lab to try to synthesize Zn(AuF6)3. As Excimer commented on another site, "Enough theory! Someone make the damn thing already".
Image source: ACS publications.


  1. I thought that s-electrons (rather than d-) were most affected by relativistic effects, having a greater probability density closer to the nucleus, increasing their relativistic mass, and contracting the orbitals more?

    1. Thanks, you are right, I updated the post. The d-electrons are indirectly affected though.


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