Dichotomous well-defined nanostructure with weakly arranged ion packing explains the solvency of pyrrolidinium acetate

24 May 2019

Pyrrolidinium ionic liquids, especially pyrrolidinium acetate (PyrrAc), have demonstrated outstanding capacity for extracting lignin from biomass, as electrolytes for fuel cells and lithium ion batteries and as solvents for acid-catalysed reactions. In this work we show that the unusual liquid nanostructure of PyrrAc is the key to its versatility as a solvent compared to other ionic liquids. Neutron diffraction with multiple H/D isotopic substitutions reveals that the bulk nanostructure of PyrrAc is a bicontinuous network of interpenetrating polar and apolar domains. However, the arrangement of groups in both domains is strikingly different from that found in other ionic liquids. In the apolar regions, the pyrrolidinium rings are highly intercalated and disordered, with no preferred alignment between adjacent pyrrolidinium rings, which distinguishes it from both π−π stacking seen in imidazolium or pyridinium ionic liquids, and the tail-tail bilayer-like arrangements in linear alkylammonium ionic liquids. The H-bond network within the polar domain extends only to form finite clusters, with long bent H-bonds to accommodate electrostatics. Therefore, while PyrrAc unquestionably has well defined amphiphilic nanostructure, the disordered arrangement of groups in the polar and apolar domains enables it to accommodate a wide variety of solutes. The combination of well-defined polar/apolar nanostructure, but disordered arrangements of groups within domains, is therefore the origin of PyrrAc’s capacity for lignin extraction and as an electrolyte.