Abstract: Transition metal-nitrogen-carbon materials (M-N-C catalysts) are promising electrocatalysts in polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFCs) and electrolyzer applications. High temperature treatment in inert atmosphere (pyrolysis) is the essential, most common method for the synthesis of M-N-C catalysts and critical to achieve high electrocatalytic activity and electronic conductivity. To this day, despite many uses and successful implementations in materials manufacturing, pyrolysis has been an entirely empirical technology, with process control and optimization relying exclusively on “Edisonian” approach. The knowledge gap in the mechanism about how the precursor is being transformed into catalysts hinders further development of the M-N-C catalysts regardless of the precursor class and processing protocols. Herein, we probed the morphological evolution and chemical transformation of a nitrogen-containing charge transfer organic salt, mixed with transition metal (iron) salt and amorphous silica powder (precursor) during the pyrolysis process via a combination of in situ synchrotron and laboratory-based diagnostic techniques. The pyrolysis process is found to be divided into three stages. During a controlled temperature ramp, the selected organic N-C precursor (nicarbazin) began melting and decomposing just below 400?°C, forming a certain number of micrometer-scale pores and pathways. With increase in temperature from 400?°C to 900?°C, amorphous carbon domains started forming, and reduced (metallic) iron nanoclusters appeared, being dispersed uniformly throughout the carbonaceous matrix. When temperature advanced above 900?°C, graphitization of carbon commenced, associated with appearance and evolution of atomically dispersed metal-nitrogen moieties in the carbonaceous matrix. As the graphitization advanced further, a secondary process of agglomeration of metal nanoparticles occurred. Multi-analytical technique observations conducted here provide a base for rational design and optimization of M-N-C electrocatalysts via pyrolysis.

Catalysts by pyrolysis: Direct observation of chemical and morphological transformations leading to transition metal-nitrogen-carbon materials
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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2021.02.006