Watching nanoparticle chemistry and structure evolve

Using a multimodal approach developed at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), researchers learned how chemical properties correlate with structural changes during nanoparticle growth.

The work will enable a greater understanding of the mechanisms affecting the durability of nanoparticles used to catalyze a broad range of chemical reactions, including clean-energy reactions.

Catalyzing technological progress

In applications ranging from chemical synthesis to energy storage, catalysts enable chemical reactions to run at more favorable temperatures, pressures, or in general, with lower energy requirements. For example, catalysts enable the efficient splitting of water to generate hydrogen, which can then be used as a clean, decarbonized fuel.

For such applications, nanoparticles on the surface of a transition-metal oxide work well as catalysts, but they are susceptible to coarsening, agglomeration, and other forms of degradation, shortening their usable lifetime. In this work, researchers applied a technique they developed at the ALS to simultaneously study the chemistry and structure of catalyst materials as they form, a capability that will help scientists identify strategies for improving nanoparticle durability.

Understanding nanoparticle exsolution

A process called “exsolution” has shown significant promise for controlling nanoparticle size, shape, distribution, and stability. Briefly, the process involves causing dopant atoms in a host matrix to migrate to the surface and gather to form nanoparticles. This is done by heating the host material under reducing conditions (i.e., in a reducing gas such as hydrogen). Exsolution from metal oxide hosts produces highly stable metal nanoparticles that are often partially embedded in the oxide surface and show high activity for the oxygen evolution reaction (OER), a key step in many electrochemical reactions, including water splitting.

Here, the samples studied were thin films of SrTi0.9Nb0.05Ni0.05O3-δ (STNNi). When STNNi is heated in H2 gas, the Ni atoms migrate to the surface and form nanoparticles. Before the reducing treatment, such samples are inactive with respect to the OER. After treatment, the system becomes active, despite a relatively small amount of Ni doping.

Read more on the ALS website

Image: Atomic force microscope images of nickel- and niobium-co-doped strontium titanate, before (left) and after (right) thermal treatment in a reducing (H2) atmosphere. After treatment, bright features consistent with the formation of nickel nanoparticles are observed.