Hydrogenolysis is a chemical reaction whereby a carbon–carbon or carbon–heteroatom single bond is cleaved or undergoes lysis (breakdown) by hydrogen. The heteroatom may vary, but it usually is oxygen, nitrogen, or sulfur. A related reaction is hydrogenation, where hydrogen is added to the molecule, without cleaving bonds. Usually hydrogenolysis is conducted catalytically using hydrogen gas.
The term "hydrogenolysis" was coined by Carleton Ellis in reference to hydrogenolysis of carbon–carbon bonds. Earlier, Sabatier had already observed the hydrogenolysis of benzyl alcohol to toluene, and as early as 1906, Padoa and Ponti had observed the hydrogenolysis of furfuryl alcohol. Homer Burton Adkins and Ralph Connor were the first to call the carbon–oxygen bond cleavage "hydrogenolysis".
In the petrochemical industry
In petroleum refineries, catalytic hydrogenolysis of feedstocks is conducted on a large scale to remove sulfur from feedstocks, releasing gaseous hydrogen sulfide (H2S). The hydrogen sulfide is subsequently recovered in an amine treater and finally converted to elemental sulfur in a Claus process unit. In those industries, desulfurization process units are often referred to as hydrodesulfurizers (HDS) or hydrotreaters (HDT). Catalysts are based on molybdenum sulfide containing smaller amounts of cobalt or nickel. Hydrogenolysis is accompanied by hydrogenation.
Another hydrogenolysis reaction of commercial importance is the hydrogenolysis of esters into alcohols by catalysts such as copper chromite.
In the laboratory
- ROCH2C6H5 + H2 → ROH + CH3C6H5
Laboratory hydrogenolysis is operationally similar to hydrogenation, and may be accomplished at atmospheric pressure by stirring the reaction mixture under a slight positive pressure of hydrogen gas, having flushed the apparatus with more of this gas. The hydrogen may be provided by attaching a balloon to a needle, filling it from a bottle, and inserting the needle into the reaction flask via a rubber septum. At high pressure, a hydrogenation autoclave (i.e., a Parr hydrogenator) or similar piece of equipment is required.
- Ralph Connor, Homer Adkins. Hydrogenolysis Of Oxygenated Organic Compounds. J. Am. Chem. Soc.; 1932; 54(12); 4678–4690. doi:10.1021/ja01351a026
- Carleton Ellis. Hydrogenation of Organic Substances, 3rd ed., Van Nostrand Company, New York, 1930, p. 564 (as referred by Connor and Adkins).
- Sabatier and Murat. Ann. Chim.  4, 258, (1915), according to Connor and Adkins.
- Furfuryl alcohol hydrogenation is accompanied by hydrogenolysis into 2-methylfuran, which gives 2-methyltetrahydrofuran, and further hydrogenolysis opens the ring to give 2-pentanol. Original: Padoa and Ponti. Atti. R. accad. Lincei, 15,  610 (1906); Gazz. chim. ital. 37,  105 (1907), according to Kaufmann: W. E. Kaufmann, Roger Adams. The Use Of Platinum Oxide As A Catalyst In The Reduction Of Organic Compounds. Iv. Reduction Of Furfural And Its Derivatives. J. Am. Chem. Soc.; 1923; 45(12); 3029–44. doi:10.1021/ja01665a033
- Topsøe, H.; Clausen, B. S.; Massoth, F. E., Hydrotreating Catalysis, Science and Technology, Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 1996.
- For example, Organic Syntheses, Coll. Vol. 7, p. 386 (1990); Vol. 60, p. 92 (1981). http://orgsynth.org/orgsyn/pdfs/CV7P0386.pdf. For an example of C-N scission, see Organic Syntheses, Coll. Vol. 8, p. 152 (1993); Vol. 68, p. 227 (1990). http://orgsynth.org/orgsyn/pdfs/CV8P0152.pdf