An unconventional chain termination reaction has been explored for the SHOP (Shell higher olefin process)-type, anilinotropone, and salicylaldiminato nickel-based oligo- and polymerization catalysts by using density functional theory (DFT). Starting from the tetracoordinate alkyl phosphine complex, the termination reaction was found to involve a rearrangement of the alkyl chain to form a pentacoordinate β-agostic complex, β-hydride elimination, and olefinic chain dissociation and to compete with propagation at sufficiently high phosphine concentration and/or basicity. It provides the first complete and convincing mechanistic rationale for the decreasing chain lengths observed upon increasing phosphine concentration and basicity. The unconventional reaction was found to be a major termination pathway for the SHOP-type catalyst and is very unlikely to lead to branching and olefin isomerization, which is critical for explaining why the SHOP catalyst, in contrast to the anilinotropone and salicylaldiminato catalysts, tends to lead to the oligomerization of ethylene to form linear α-olefins. Based on our results we have proposed a new and extended catalytic cycle for the SHOP-type ethylene oligomerization catalyst. Finally, the importance of the new termination reaction for the SHOP-type catalyst suggests that this reaction may also operate with other ethylene oligomerization nickel catalysts. This prediction was confirmed for a pyrazolonatophosphine catalyst, for which the new termination route was found to be even more facile, which explains the short oligomers produced by this catalyst.
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