An Integrated Single-Electrode Method Reveals the Template Roles of Atomic Steps: Disturb Interfacial Water Networks and Thus Affect the Reactivity of Electrocatalysts

J Am Chem Soc. 2019 May 29;141(21):8516-8526. doi: 10.1021/jacs.9b02049. Epub 2019 May 10.


A method enabling the accurate and precise correlation between structures and properties is critical to the development of efficient electrocatalysts. To this end, we developed an integrated single-electrode method (ISM) that intimately couples electrochemical rotating disk electrodes, in situ/operando X-ray absorption fine structures, and aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy on identical electrodes. This all-in-one method allows for the one-to-one, in situ/operando, and atomic-scale correlation between structures of electrocatalysts with their electrochemical reactivities, distinct from common methods that adopt multisamples separately for electrochemical and physical characterizations. Because the atomic step is one of the most fundamentally structural elements in electrocatalysts, we demonstrated the feasibility of ISM by exploring the roles of atomic steps in the reactivity of electrocatalysts. In situ and atomic-scale evidence shows that low-coordinated atomic steps not only generate reactive species at low potentials and strengthen surface contraction but also act as templates to disturb interfacial water networks and thus affect the reactivity of electrocatalysts. This template role interprets the long-standing puzzle regarding why high-index facets are active for the oxygen reduction reaction in acidic media. The ISM as a fundamentally new method for workflows should aid the study of many other electrocatalysts regarding their nature of active sites and operative mechanisms.