New Technology Unlocks Atomic-Level Insights into Catalysts

Catalyst technology

Pioneering Research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A groundbreaking technique developed by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is revolutionizing our understanding of catalysts at the atomic level. This innovative approach allows researchers to peer into electrochemical processes with unprecedented resolution, shedding light on a popular catalyst material that could transform the way we generate fuels and power our world.

The Power of Electrochemical Reactions

Electrochemical reactions are the driving force behind batteries, fuel cells, electrolysis, and solar-powered fuel generation. They also play a crucial role in biological processes like photosynthesis and the formation of metal ores beneath the Earth’s surface. Understanding these reactions at the atomic scale is essential for designing efficient catalysts and improving their performance.

Enter the Polymer Liquid Cell (PLC)

The Berkeley Lab team’s breakthrough lies in their creation of a small, enclosed chamber—the polymer liquid cell (PLC). Paired with transmission electron microscopy (TEM), this cell allows scientists to observe electrochemical reactions in real time. What sets the PLC apart is its ability to freeze the reaction at specific timepoints, enabling detailed analysis of composition changes during each stage.

Unveiling the Copper Catalyst

The team applied their novel technique to study a copper catalyst—a material of immense interest due to its potential to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into valuable carbon-based chemicals such as methanol, ethanol, and acetone. By focusing on the solid-liquid interface within the reaction, where the catalyst meets the liquid electrolyte, they captured unprecedented images and data.

Atomic-Level Insights

Using TEM, the team visualized copper atoms leaving the metal phase and interacting with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in the electrolyte. Together with carbon dioxide, the catalyst formed an amorphous state—neither solid nor liquid—that persisted only during the reaction. Once the current ceased, the copper returned to its solid state. Studying these dynamics at the solid-liquid interface provides critical information for enhancing catalyst performance.

Beyond Carbon Conversion

The PLC isn’t limited to carbon dioxide conversion. Researchers are eager to explore other electrochemical reactions and address challenges faced by lithium and zinc batteries. Even natural processes, such as metal ore formation and plant photosynthesis, fall within the PLC’s scope.

The future of catalyst design looks electrifying, thanks to the PLC-enabled TEM. As we unlock atomic secrets, cleaner energy solutions come into sharper focus.

Unexpected Transformations

Using electron microscopy, electron energy loss spectroscopy, and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, the researchers discovered unexpected transformations occurring at the atomic level during the reaction. These insights provide critical information for designing more efficient catalysts and understanding their degradation mechanisms.

The Polymer Liquid Cell (PLC) technology has far-reaching implications beyond its initial application in studying catalysts. Here are some other areas that could benefit:

  • Battery Research and Development: The PLC could revolutionize battery research by allowing scientists to observe electrochemical reactions within battery materials at the atomic level. Insights gained from studying solid-liquid interfaces could lead to more efficient and longer-lasting batteries.
  • Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Production: Fuel cells, which generate electricity through electrochemical reactions, could benefit from the PLC. Researchers could study catalysts used in fuel cells to enhance their performance and durability. Hydrogen production via water electrolysis is another area where the PLC could play a crucial role. Understanding catalyst behaviour during electrolysis could lead to more efficient hydrogen production.
  • Environmental Remediation: The PLC might help researchers understand how catalysts can break down pollutants or convert harmful substances into less toxic forms. Applications could include water purification and air quality improvement.
  • Materials Science and Nanotechnology: Studying solid-liquid interfaces using the PLC could advance our understanding of material properties and behaviour. This knowledge could inform the design of new materials with specific functionalities.
  • Biological Processes: The PLC’s ability to freeze reactions at specific time points could be valuable for studying biological processes. Researchers might explore cellular reactions, protein interactions, or enzymatic reactions.
  • Photovoltaics and Solar Cells: Investigating catalysts involved in solar energy conversion could lead to more efficient solar cells. The PLC could provide insights into how light-absorbing materials interact with electrolytes.
  • Chemical Industry and Catalysis: Beyond carbon dioxide reduction, the PLC could aid in developing catalysts for various chemical transformations. Industries such as petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and fine chemicals could benefit.

Remember that the PLC’s versatility extends beyond these examples. As researchers continue to explore its capabilities, we can expect even more exciting applications in the future!

A Promising Future

Lead author Haimei Zheng emphasizes the importance of knowing how catalysts work and degrade: “If we don’t understand failure, we can’t improve the design.” Co-first author Qiubo Zhang adds, “We’re confident that this technology will lead to significant advancements in all electrochemical-driven technologies.”

The Berkeley Lab team is already exploring other electrocatalytic materials, including investigations into lithium and zinc batteries. As details revealed by the PLC-enabled TEM continue to unfold, the future of catalyst design looks electrifying.


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