Understanding catalysts at the atomic level can provide a cleaner environment

October 10, 2018, Chalmers University of Technology
Understanding catalysts at the atomic level can provide a cleaner environment​By studying materials down to the atomic level,
Illustration of catalytic nanoparticles (blue-yellow) reacting with molecules from exhaust fumes (red/black), and being analysed by means of an electron beam (green). Credit: Alexander Ericson / Mindboom

By studying materials down to the atomic level, researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have found a way to make catalysts more efficient and environmentally friendly. The results have been published in Nature Communications. The methods can be used to improve many different types of catalysts.

Catalysts are which cause or accelerate chemical reactions. For most of us, our first thought is probably of in cars, but catalysts are used in a number of areas of society – it has been estimated that catalysts are used in the manufacture of more than 90 percent of all chemicals and fuels. No matter how they are used, catalysts operate through complex atomic processes. In the new study from Chalmers University of Technology, physics researchers combined two approaches to add a new piece to the puzzle. They used advanced, high-resolution and new types of computer simulations.

"It is fantastic that we have managed to stretch the limits and achieve such precision with electron microscopy. We can see exactly where and how the atoms are arranged in the structure. By having picometre precision – that is, a level of precision down to one hundredths of an atom's diameter – we can eventually improve the material properties and thus the ," says Torben Nilsson Pingel, researcher at the Department of Physics at Chalmers and one of the authors of the scientific article.

Through this work, he and his colleagues have managed to show that picometre-level changes in atomic spacing in metallic nanoparticles affect catalytic activity. The researchers looked at nanoparticles of platinum using sophisticated electron microscopes in the Chalmers Material Analysis Laboratory. With method development by Andrew Yankovich, the researchers have been able to improve the accuracy and can now even reach sub-picometre precision. Their results now have broad implications.

"Our methods are not limited to specific materials but instead based on general principles that can be applied to different catalytic systems. As we can design the materials better, we can get both more energy-efficient catalysts and a cleaner environment," says Eva Olsson, Professor at the Department of Physics at Chalmers.

The work was carried out within the framework of the Competence Centre for Catalysis at Chalmers. In order to study how small changes in atomic spacing really affect the catalytic process, Mikkel Jørgensen and Henrik Grönbeck, Ph.D. student and Professor at the Department of Physics respectively, performed advanced computer simulations at the national computing centre, located at Chalmers. Using the information from the microscope, they were able to simulate exactly how the is affected by small changes in atomic distances.

"We developed a new method for making simulations for catalytic processes on nanoparticles. Since we have been able to use real values in our calculation model, we can see how the reaction can be optimised. Catalysis is an important technology area, so every improvement is a worthwhile advance – both economically and environmentally," says Henrik Grönbeck.

The article, "Influence of atomic site-specific strain on of supported nanoparticles," has been published in Nature Communications.

Explore further: Visualizing chemical reactions on bimetal surfaces

More information: Torben Nilsson Pingel et al. Influence of atomic site-specific strain on catalytic activity of supported nanoparticles, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-05055-1

Related Stories

Visualizing chemical reactions on bimetal surfaces

July 26, 2018

Catalysts are the result of chemists seeking to unravel the beauty of molecules and the mystery of chemical reactions. Professor Jeong Young Park, whose research focuses on catalytic chemical reactions, is no exception. His ...

Recommended for you

Engineers produce smallest 3-D transistor yet

December 10, 2018

Researchers from MIT and the University of Colorado have fabricated a 3-D transistor that's less than half the size of today's smallest commercial models. To do so, they developed a novel microfabrication technique that modifies ...

New traffic rules in 'Graphene City'

December 6, 2018

In the drive to find new ways to extend electronics beyond the use of silicon, physicists are experimenting with other properties of electrons, beyond charge. In work published today (Dec 7) in the journal Science, a team ...

Artificial synapses made from nanowires

December 6, 2018

Scientists from Jülich together with colleagues from Aachen and Turin have produced a memristive element made from nanowires that functions in much the same way as a biological nerve cell. The component is able to save and ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.