Comparative in operando studies in heterogeneous catalysis: Atomic and electronic structural features in the hydrogenation of ethylene over supported pd and pt catalysts

Ulrich Jung, Annika Elsen, Yuanyuan Li, Jeremy G. Smith, Matthew W. Small, Eric A. Stach, Anatoly I. Frenkel, Ralph G. Nuzzo

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


There exists an emerging opportunity, engendered by advances made in experimental methods of research, to address long-standing questions about the nature of the molecular mechanisms that are operative in important heterogeneous catalytic processes, as well as the nature of the complex atomic and electronic structural features that mediate them. Of particular interest in this regard is the understanding of the dynamical attributes of catalytic processes-an understanding that might allow design principles to be applied to optimize the atomic and electronic structure of heterogeneous catalysts to sustain their performance in essentially any operating process condition. The current work explores these ideas-highlighting capabilities of in operando methods of spectroscopic characterization as applied to an exemplary heterogeneous catalytic process, olefin hydrogenation. No heterogeneous catalytic process has been studied more intensively than olefin hydrogenation. The extensive literature available establishes important features by which metal catalysts activate and efficiently transform the bonding of the hydrogen and alkene reactants to generate a product alkane. Even so, many important mechanistic questions remain poorly understood due to the inherent multiscale complexity associated with heterogeneous catalytic transformations, as well as the paucity of methods suitable for their characterization in operando. The recent literature documents the development of new capabilities for characterization afforded by in situ and in operando methods. Of these, X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) has become a particularly important technique for studying the mechanisms of catalytic reactions due to its capabilities for elucidating the nature of the atomic and electronic structural features of operating catalysts. Many important questions can now be addressed, in particular those that follow from the unique dynamical impacts and patterns of reactivity that occur in higher pressure (non-UHV) environments. In this Perspective, we examine important structure-property correlations for an exemplary model reaction-ethylene hydrogenation-as elucidated in operando for two efficient catalyst materials-nanoscale Pd and Pt clusters supported on SiO2. The examined features include the following: the structural dynamics of the metal clusters and their sensitivity to the composition of the reactant feed; the role of hydrogen, and metal- and/or support-bonded forms of adsorbates more generally, in forming intermediates and products; the influences of adsorbate bonding states (e.g., hydrogen) on reactivity; the role played by carbonaceous deposits (and the mechanisms of their formation); the quantitative nature of the atomistic features that exist within the structure-sensitivity correlations of this catalytic reaction; and mechanisms that mediate the sintering of catalysts operating in high-pressure ambient environment. Here we present a comparative overview of the hydrogenation of ethylene over 1 nm-sized Pd and Pt catalysts supported on SiO2. The reaction was characterized in various mixed hydrogen and ethylene atmospheres at ambient conditions by in operando XAS and complemented with scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM). Pronounced changes in the atomic and electronic structures of both catalysts (e.g., defined transitions between hydrogen- and hydrocarbon-covered surfaces, carbide-phase formation, hydrogen (de)intercalation, and particle coarsening) are found to occur during the reaction. The evolution of the catalysts features, however, has only minimal impact on the largely reversible patterns of reactivity. These findings demonstrate remarkable dynamic structural complexity within the mechanisms of alkane formation over both types of supported catalysts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1539-1551
Number of pages13
JournalACS Catalysis
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 6 2015


  • X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS)
  • atomic structure
  • ethylene hydrogenation
  • in operando study
  • scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM)
  • structural dynamics
  • supported metal nanocatalysts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Chemistry(all)


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