Unusual View of a Single Catalyst Nanoparticle in Action Under Reaction Conditions

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X-rays reveal compositional changes on active surface under reaction conditions.

A -led research team has been using high-intensity X-rays to observe a single catalyst nanoparticle at work. The experiment has revealed for the first time how the chemical composition of the surface of an individual nanoparticle changes under reaction conditions, making it more active. The team led by DESY’s Andreas Stierle is presenting its findings in the journal Science Advances. This study marks an important step towards a better understanding of real, industrial catalytic materials.

Catalysts are materials that promote chemical reactions without being consumed themselves. Today, catalysts are used in numerous industrial processes, from fertilizer production to manufacturing plastics. Because of this, catalysts are of huge economic importance. A very well-known example is the catalytic converter installed in the exhaust systems of cars. These contain precious metals such as platinum, rhodium, and palladium, which allow highly toxic carbon monoxide (CO) to be converted into carbon dioxide (CO2) and reduce the amount of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx).

“In spite of their widespread use and great importance, we are still ignorant of many important details of just how the various catalysts work,” explains Stierle, head of the DESY NanoLab. “That’s why we have long wanted to study real catalysts while in operation.” This is not easy, because in order to make the active surface as large as possible, catalysts are typically used in the form of tiny nanoparticles, and the changes that affect their activity occur on their surface.

Surface strain relates to chemical composition

In the framework of the EU project Nanoscience Foundries and Fine Analysis (NFFA), the team from DESY NanoLab has developed a technique for labeling individual nanoparticles and thereby identifying them in a sample. “For the study, we grew nanoparticles of a platinum-rhodium on a substrate in the lab and labeled one specific particle,” says co-author Thomas Keller from DESY NanoLab and in charge of the project at DESY. “The diameter of the labeled particle is around 100 nanometres, and it is similar to the particles used in a car’s catalytic converter.” A nanometre is a millionth of a millimeter.

Using X-rays from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility ESRF in Grenoble, France, the team was not only able to create a detailed image of the nanoparticle; it also measured the mechanical strain within its surface. “The surface strain is related to the surface composition, in particular the ratio of platinum to rhodium… Brinkwire News Summary.

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