We report here the results of density functional theory quantum mechanical (QM) studies of the detailed chemical mechanism underlying the n-butane selective oxidation to form maleic anhydride (MA) on vanadyl pyrophosphate [(VO)2P2O7] and vanadyl phosphate [VOPO4] surfaces. This QM-derived mechanism differs substantially from previous suggestions but is in excellent agreement with key experimental observations. We find that the O(1)=P bond of the oxidized X1 phase of the VOPO4 surface is the active site for initiating the VPO chemistry, by extracting the H from the n-butane C-H bond. This contrasts sharply with previous suggestions, all of which involved the V=O bonds. The ability of O(1)=P to cleave alkane C-H bonds arises from a new unique mechanism that decouples the proton transfer and electron transfer components of this H atom transfer reaction. We find that the juxtaposition of a highly reducible V+5 next to the P=O bond but coupled via a bridging oxygen dramatically enhances the activity of the P=O bond to extract the proton from an alkane, while simultaneously transferring the electron to the V to form V+4. This Reduction-Coupled Oxo Activation (ROA) mechanism had not been known prior to these QM studies, but we believe that it may lead to a new strategy in designing selective catalysts for alkane activation and functionalization, and indeed it may be responsible for the selective oxidation by a number of known mixed metal oxide catalysts. To demonstrate the viability of this new ROA mechanism, we examine step by step the full sequence of reactions from n-butane to MA via two independent pathways. We that find that every step is plausible, with a highest reaction barrier of 21.7 kcal/mol.
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