Adapted from this Berkeley Lab press release
Since the 1970s, scientists have known that copper has a special ability to transform carbon dioxide into valuable chemicals and fuels. But for many years, scientists have struggled to understand how this common metal works as an electrocatalyst, a mechanism that uses energy from electrons to chemically transform molecules into different products.
Now, a research team of Foundry users, working with staff, has gained new insight by capturing real-time movies of copper nanoparticles (copper particles engineered at the scale of a billionth of a meter) as they convert CO2 and water into renewable fuels and chemicals: ethylene, ethanol, and propanol, among others. The work was recently reported in the journal Nature.
“This is very exciting. After decades of work, we’re finally able to show – with undeniable proof – how copper electrocatalysts excel in CO2 reduction,” said Peidong Yang, Foundry user and a senior faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences and Chemical Sciences Divisions who led the study.
The work was made possible by combining a new imaging technique called operando 4D electrochemical liquid-cell STEM (scanning transmission electron microscopy) with a soft X-ray probe to investigate the same sample environment: copper nanoparticles in liquid. First author Yao Yang, a UC Berkeley Miller postdoctoral fellow, conceived the groundbreaking approach under the guidance of Peidong Yang while working toward his Ph.D. in chemistry at Cornell University.
Scientists who study artificial photosynthesis materials and reactions have wanted to combine the power of an electron probe with X-rays, but the two techniques typically can’t be performed by the same instrument.
Electron microscopes (such as STEM or TEM) use beams of electrons and excel at characterizing the atomic structure in parts of a material. In recent years, 4D STEM (or “2D raster of 2D diffraction patterns using scanning transmission electron microscopy”) instruments, such as those at the Molecular Foundry, have pushed the boundaries of electron microscopy even further, enabling scientists to map out atomic or molecular regions in a variety of materials, from hard metallic glass to soft, flexible films.
On the other hand, soft (or lower-energy) X-rays are useful for identifying and tracking chemical reactions in real time in an operando, or real-world, environment.
But now, scientists can have the best of both worlds. At the heart of the new technique is an electrochemical “liquid cell” sample holder with remarkable versatility. A thousand times thinner than a human hair, the device is compatible with both STEM and X-ray instruments.
The electrochemical liquid cell’s ultrathin design allows reliable imaging of delicate samples while protecting them from electron beam damage. A special electrode custom-designed by co-author Cheng Wang, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, enabled the team to conduct X-ray experiments with the electrochemical liquid cell. Combining the two allows researchers to comprehensively characterize electrochemical reactions in real time and at the nanoscale.
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During 4D-STEM experiments, Yao Yang and team used the new electrochemical liquid cell to observe copper nanoparticles (ranging in size from 7 nanometers to 18 nanometers) evolve into active nanograins during CO2 electrolysis – a process that uses electricity to drive a reaction on the surface of an electrocatalyst.
The experiments revealed a surprise: copper nanoparticles combined into larger metallic copper “nanograins” within seconds of the electrochemical reaction.
The RSoXS experiments at the Advanced Light Source – along with additional evidence gathered at Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) – proved that metallic copper nanograins serve as active sites for CO2 reduction. (Metallic copper, also known as copper(0), is a form of the element copper.)
During CO2 electrolysis, the copper nanoparticles change their structure during a process called “electrochemical scrambling.” The copper nanoparticles’ surface layer of oxide degrades, creating open sites on the copper surface for CO2 molecules to attach, explained Peidong Yang. And as CO2 “docks” or binds to the copper nanograin surface, electrons are then transferred to CO2, causing a reaction that simultaneously produces ethylene, ethanol, and propanol along with other multicarbon products.
Further experiments at the Molecular Foundry, the Advanced Light Source, and CHESS revealed that size matters. All of the 7-nanometer copper nanoparticles participated in CO2 reduction, whereas the larger nanoparticles did not. In addition, the team learned that only metallic copper can efficiently reduce CO2 into multicarbon products. The findings have implications for “rationally designing efficient CO2 electrocatalysts,” Peidong Yang said.
Read the full press release