Ion-Hydroxyl Interactions: From High-Level Quantum Benchmarks to Transferable Polarizable Force Fields

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Ion descriptors in molecular mechanics models are calibrated against reference data on ion–water interactions. It is then typically assumed that these descriptors will also satisfactorily describe interactions of ions with other functional groups, such as those present in biomolecules. However, several studies now demonstrate that this transferability assumption produces, in many different cases, large errors. Here we address this issue in a representative polarizable model and focus on transferability of cationic interactions from water to a series of alcohols. Both water and alcohols use hydroxyls for ion-coordination, and, therefore, this set of molecules constitutes the simplest possible case of transferability. We obtain gas phase reference data systematically from “gold-standard” quantum Monte Carlo and CCSD(T) methods, followed by benchmarked vdW-corrected DFT. We learn that the original polarizable model yields large gas phase water → alcohol transferability errors – the RMS and maximum errors are 2.3 and 5.1 kcal/mol, respectively. These errors are, nevertheless, systematic in that ion-alcohol interactions are overstabilized, and systematic errors typically imply that some essential physics is either missing or misrepresented. A comprehensive analysis shows that when both low- and high-field responses of ligand dipole polarization are described accurately, then transferability improves significantly – the RMS and maximum errors in the gas phase reduce, respectively, to 0.9 and 2.5 kcal/mol. Additionally, predictions of condensed phase transfer free energies also improve. Nevertheless, within the limits of the extrathermodynamic assumptions necessary to separate experimental estimates of salt dissolution into constituent cationic and anionic contributions, we note that the error in the condensed phase is systematic, which we attribute, at least, partially to the parametrization in long-range electrostatics. Overall, this work demonstrates a rational approach to boosting transferability of ionic interactions that will be applicable broadly to improving other polarizable and nonpolarizable models.

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Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, v. 15, issue 4, p. 2444-2453