• hydrogen bonds;
  • ethylene glycols;
  • oligo(phenylene-ethynylene)s;
  • planar conformation;
  • supramolecular chemistry


A series of conjugated oligo(p-phenylene-ethynylene) (OPE) molecules with backbone conformations (that is, the relative orientations of the contained phenylene units) controlled by competitive intramolecular hydrogen bonds to be either co-planar or random were synthesised and studied. In these oligomers, carboxylate and amido substituents were attached to alternate phenylene units in the OPE backbone. These functional groups were able to form intramolecular hydrogen bonds between neighbouring phenylene units. Thereby, all phenylene units in the backbone were confined in a co-planar conformation. This planarised structure featured a more extended effective conjugation length than that of regular OPEs with phenylene units adopting random orientation due to a low rotational-energy barrier. However, if a tri(ethylene glycol) (Tg) side chain was appended to the amido group, it enabled another type of intramolecular hydrogen bond, formed by the Tg chain folding back and the contained ether oxygen atom competing with the ester carbonyl group as the hydrogen-bond acceptor. The outcome of this competition was proven to depend on the length of the alkylene linker joining the ether oxygen atom to the amido group. Specifically, if the Tg chain folded back to form a five-membered cyclic structure, this hydrogen-bonding motif was sufficiently robust to overrule the hydrogen bonds between adjacent phenylene units. Consequently, the oligomers assumed non-planar conformations. However, if the side chain formed a six-membered ring by hydrogen bonding with the amido NH group, such a motif was much less stable and yielded in the competition with the ester carbonyl group from the adjacent phenylene unit. Thus, the hydrogen bonds between the phenylene units remained, and the co-planar conformation was manifested. In our system, the hydrogen bonds formed by the back-folded Tg chain and amido NH group relied on a single oxygen atom as the hydrogen-bond acceptor. The additional oxygen atoms in the Tg chain made a negligible contribution. A bifurcated hydrogen-bond motif was unimportant. From our results, in combination with the results from an independent study by Meijer et al.,13 it is evident that intramolecular hydrogen bonds involving back-folded oligo(ethylene glycol) moieties may differ in their structural details. Absorption spectroscopy served as a convenient yet sensitive technique for analysing hydrogen-bonding motifs in our study.