Transition metal-nitrogen-carbon (M-N-C) materials have been the focus of scientists’ efforts to address the rising need for earth-abundant materials solutions for energy technology and decarbonization of the economy. They are viewed as one of the most promising candidates to replace platinum group metal (PGM) catalysts in the fuel cell and energy conversion fields, including the application of oxygen reduction reactioncarbon dioxide reduction reaction, and nitrogen reduction reaction. In the effort to improve M-N-C materials properties and achieve atomic dispersity of the transition metal in the carbonaceous matrix, a re-pyrolysis process has been proposed. This secondary heat treatment process of already obtained primary pyrolysis-derived M-N-C materials has been widely reported to substantially improve the electrochemical performance and operational stability of the catalysts. Here, we report a systematic investigation of this process used on samples of templated M-N-C catalysts to obtain state-of-the-art catalysts via in situ heating X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS), electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and X-ray computed tomography (CT) characterization methods. It is found that the re-pyrolysis of M-N-C materials could result in the partial amorphization of the carbonaceous substrate. It causes the rearrangement and transformation of multitudinous N moieties, leading to optimization of their morphological display and association with atomically dispersed transition metal dopants. Ultimately, the re-pyrolysis results in an increase in uniformity of the active Fe-Nx sites distribution without the formation of nano-crystalline phases (metallic or carbide) and with overall preservation of the morphology of the carbonaceous framework achieved during the first formative pyrolysis step of the templated synthesis. These observations provide confirmation that empirically established re-pyrolysis is recommended to be used on all M-N-C materials despite the different synthesis routes to obtain a practical advanced catalytic material.

Catalysts by pyrolysis: Direct observation of transformations during re-pyrolysis of transition metal-nitrogen-carbon materials leading to state-of-the-art platinum group metal-free electrocatalyst
Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2022.01.016