Proton-coupled electron transfer in molecular electrocatalysis: Theoretical methods and design principles

Brian H. Solis, Sharon Hammes-Schiffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Molecular electrocatalysts play an essential role in a wide range of energy conversion processes. The objective of electrocatalyst design is to maximize the turnover frequency and minimize the overpotential for the overall catalytic cycle. Typically, the catalytic cycle is dominated by key proton-coupled electron transfer (PCET) processes comprised of sequential or concerted electron and proton transfer steps. Theoretical methods have been developed to investigate the mechanisms, thermodynamics, and kinetics of PCET processes in electrocatalytic cycles. Electronic structure methods can be used to calculate the reduction potentials and pKa's and to generate thermodynamic schemes, free energy reaction pathways, and Pourbaix diagrams, which indicate the most stable species under certain conditions. These types of calculations have assisted in identifying the thermodynamically favorable mechanisms under specified experimental conditions, such as acid strength and overpotential. Such calculations have also revealed linear correlations among the thermodynamic properties, which can be used to predict the impact of modifying the ligands, substituents, or metal centers. The thermodynamic properties can be tuned with electron-withdrawing or electron-donating substituents. Ligand modification can exploit the role of noninnocent ligands. For example, ligand protonation typically decreases the overpotential. Calculations of rate constants for electron and proton transfer, as well as concerted PCET, have assisted in identifying the kinetically favorable mechanisms under specified conditions. The concerted PCET mechanism is thought to lower the overpotential required for catalysis by avoiding high-energy intermediates. Rate constant calculations have revealed that the concerted mechanism involving intramolecular proton transfer will be favored by designing more flexible ligands that facilitate the proton donor-acceptor motion while also maintaining a sufficiently short equilibrium proton donor-acceptor distance. Overall, theoretical methods have assisted in the interpretation of experimental data and the design of more effective molecular electrocatalysts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6427-6443
Number of pages17
JournalInorganic Chemistry
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 7 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry


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