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Open Access Publications from the University of California

In situ formation of catalytically active graphene in ethylene photo-epoxidation


Ethylene epoxidation is used to produce 2 × 107 ton per year of ethylene oxide, a major feedstock for commodity chemicals and plastics. While high pressures and temperatures are required for the reaction, plasmonic photoexcitation of the Ag catalyst enables epoxidation at near-ambient conditions. Here, we use surface-enhanced Raman scattering to monitor the plasmon excitation-assisted reaction on individual sites of a Ag nanoparticle catalyst. We uncover an unconventional mechanism, wherein the primary step is the photosynthesis of graphene on the Ag surface. Epoxidation of ethylene is then promoted by this photogenerated graphene. Density functional theory simulations point to edge defects on the graphene as the sites for epoxidation. Guided by this insight, we synthesize a composite graphene/Ag/α-Al2O3 catalyst, which accomplishes ethylene photo-epoxidation under ambient conditions at which the conventional Ag/α-Al2O3 catalyst shows negligible activity. Our finding of in situ photogeneration of catalytically active graphene may apply to other photocatalytic hydrocarbon transformations.

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