The start of the development of catalysts for asymmetric hydrogenation was the concept of replacing the triphenylphosphane ligand of the Wilkinson catalyst with a chiral ligand. With the new catalysts, it should be possible to hydrogenate prochiral olefins. Knowles and his co-workers were convinced that the phosphorus atom played a central role in this selectivity, as only chiral phosphorus ligands such as (R,R)-DIPAMP, whose stereogenic center lies directly on the phosphorus atom, lead to high enantiomeric excesses when used as catalysts in asymmetric hydrogenation reactions. This hypothesis was disproven by the development of ligands with chiral carbon backbones. Although the exact mechanism of action of the phosphane ligands is not incontrovertibly determined to this day, they provide a simple entry to a large number of chiral compounds.
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