Theses Doctoral

Establishing Relationships Between Structure and Performance for Silicon Oxide Encapsulated Electrocatalysts

Beatty, Mariss E.S.

Supplying the global energy demand through renewable sources has never been as accessible as it is now thanks to developments in technology and infrastructure that have enabled low-cost energy production from sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. However, the challenge of integrating variable renewable energy generators into existing grid infrastructure has driven the demand for efficient and inexpensive energy storage technologies to buffer these intermittent energy supplies. Using electrochemical devices like fuel cells and electrolyzers is an attractive approach for both the long- and short-term storage of energy, where excess energy is used to drive the conversion of low energy reactants into high energy, storable fuels which can be consumed when energy supply is low. These devices rely on highly active electrocatalysts in order to drive these reactions efficiently. However, a major challenge for these technologies lies in developing catalysts at commercial scale without compromising their selectivity or lifetime. Several degradation mechanisms like catalyst particle detachment, dissolution, or surface poisoning by undesired species can quickly diminish the activity and selectivity of a given catalyst, and drive up the costs of electrochemical storage systems. Thus, developing catalysts that balance stability, activity, and selectivity is crucial to improve the economic viability of these energy storage devices.

One approach towards mitigating the issues of catalyst stability and activity is through adhering a semi-permeable oxide membrane onto the catalyst surface, creating a structure known as an oxide encapsulated electrocatalyst (OEC). These architectures have previously been shown to improve reaction selectivity, poisoning resistance and nanoparticle stability by improving the adhesion of catalyst nanoparticles, preventing poisoning species from reaching the buried catalytic interface, and controlling the local concentrations of reactants as a means of shifting reaction kinetics. Though earlier studies of OECs have demonstrated a wide array of beneficial properties that encapsulated catalyst architectures offer, they have often been based on highly heterogeneous electrodes and been evaluated across a wide range of conditions, which complicates the identification of the mechanisms that underlie these improvements. Currently, little is understood about the governing mechanisms that influence how oxide overlayers interact with – and ultimately affect – the catalyst surface, as well as alter the reactions occurring at the buried interface.

Design rules that relate OEC structure to catalytic performance have the potential to greatly accelerate the understanding and development of such architectures, and would allow for more rational, targeted design of OEC structure in a way that would accelerate their application to new electrocatalytic systems.The aim of this dissertation is therefore to systematically investigate the design space of OEC architectures by using well-defined, model planar electrocatalysts in order to draw clear relationships between the structure, composition, and chemical/physical properties of OECs and the resulting effects they have on electrocatalytic performance. Using planar Pt catalysts encapsulated by a thin, highly tunable carbon-modified silicon oxide (SiOₓCy) overlayers, properties like overlayer thickness, carbon concentration, and density can be specifically adjusted during the room temperature photochemical synthesis procedures used for overlayer fabrication. Similarly, changing the composition of the underlying Pt catalyst while keeping overlayer properties constant can provide insights into how catalyst and overlayer materials interact with and influence the structure of one another. Rigorous materials characterization like X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), atomic force microscopy (AFM), ellipsometry, and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) coupled with electroanalytical techniques such as cyclic voltammetry and impedance spectroscopy relates observations in the physical and chemical properties of OECs directly to the electrochemical performance of various probe reactions.

In Chapter 3, carbon-free, SiO₂-like overlayers of uniform thicknesses were synthesized using a room temperature, Ultraviolet (UV)-ozone photochemical process that allowed for specific control over the resulting overlayer thicknesses, which ranged between 1.8 nm and 18.0 nm. Two different compositions of the planar catalyst substrate were investigated at all thicknesses. The first catalyst investigated was a 50 nm thick, uniform layer of polycrystalline Pt that displayed bulk properties. The second, thinner catalyst substrate was only 3 nm thick, and contained trace quantities of oxophilic Ti species at the buried interface, which migrated to the surface during electrode fabrication. Ultimately it was found that electrodes based on ultrathin, Ti-doped Pt possesses thinner Pt oxide (PtOₓ) interlayers, while exhibiting reduced permeability for Cu²⁺ and H⁺ compared to the bulk Pt species. Thin layer Pt electrodes also demonstrated enhanced retention of the SiOₓ overlayer during stability testing in 0.5 M H₂SO₄, credited in part to the differences in PtOₓ concentration and structure that form at the buried interface as a result of trace Ti concentrations.

These observations lead to the study presented in Chapter 4, which sought to assess the impact of chemical and physical overlayer properties on resulting electrochemistry. Compositions of the SiOₓCy overlayer were altered by restricting the exposure of electrodes to the photochemical UV-ozone curing step during synthesis, which was responsible for removing carbonaceous groups in the overlayer’s precursor. Limiting the length of this step between 15 minutes and 120 minutes yielded overlayer with residual carbon concentrations ranging between 30% and 4%, respectively, and demonstrated markedly different physical and chemical properties that impacted species transport through the overlayer. Specifically, the less dense, carbon-rich SiOₓCy layers restricted the flux of H⁺ to the Pt interface during the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) under transport limited conditions, but displayed high permeability towards dissolved oxygen species for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR). By contrast, the denser, carbon free SiOx layers blocked oxygen transport almost entirely, but showed limiting current densities for HER that were comparable to an unencapsulated surface. This is believed to occur from the differing transport mechanisms for H⁺ and O₂ through SiOₓ, where the former diffuses through a Grotthuss-type transport mechanism, and the latter through a solution-diffusion mechanism. The high density SiOₓ layers therefore constrain the flux of O₂ due to its lower free volume compared to the carbon rich overlayers, but has a higher concentration of silanol carrier groups that promote H⁺ transport.

These results demonstrated the impact that overlayer compositions can have on modulating the local concentrations of reactants, and motivated the further study of OECs on alcohol oxidation reactions (AORs) in Chapter 5. Using the same approach to control overlayer composition detailed above, SiOₓCy overlayers deposited on Pt thin film electrodes were fabricated and their catalytic performance towards the oxidation of carbon monoxide, formic acid, and C₁-C₄ alcohols were assessed. All SiOₓCy - encapsulated electrodes decreased the overpotentials required to oxidize and remove Pt-bound CO species – a poisoning intermediate for a number of AORs, with the largest reductions seen for the carbon poor, SiO₂-like overlayers through a possible Si-OH mediated removal step. Unexpectedly though, electrodes that had the largest reductions in CO oxidation overpotentials showed the least enhancement for AOR activity for all encapsulated samples. These observations suggest that a different rate determining step may be governing the overall reaction rate on encapsulated electrodes over the potential ranges investigated - most likely bond scission of C-H bonds and/or oxidation of formate-based intermediates.

Finally, Chapter 6 presents results obtained from state-of-the-art operando ambient pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (APXPS) studies, which were used to investigate the behavior of SiOₓ overlayers and ions in solution to understand local interactions and electronic effects that arise under wetted, electrochemical operating conditions. It was found that the choice of electrolyte had a clear impact on the overlayer’s response to different applied potentials. Si 1s spectra of the SiOₓ overlayer taken in K₂SO₄ electrolytes showed a slight positive correlation with applied potential that signified a weak electronic interaction between the SiOₓ and the underlying Pt. However, when the anion was switched to Cl⁻, clear, non-linear correlations between the Si 1s binding energy and potential emerged, suggesting a major change in the local chemical and electronic conditions within the overlayer. Analyzing ion concentrations also showed that overlayers demonstrate different distributions and ion rejection properties based on an ion’s valence and size. The mechanism through which these changes manifest is quite complex, as the layers themselves can introduce numerous perturbations in the system by disrupting the electrochemical double layer, introducing steric confinement at the buried interface, or promoting different reaction pathways. Although continued work will be necessary to better de-convolute these effects and develop optimized, concise design rules, the studies presented in this thesis illustrate the unique opportunity that the application of OECs has towards the future customization of electrocatalysts for a wide range of chemistries and applications.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Chemical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Esposito, Daniel V.
Chen, Jingguang
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 22, 2022