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Mechanistic and Electronic Insights into a Working NiAu Single-Atom Alloy Ethanol Dehydrogenation Catalyst.


Elucidation of reaction mechanisms and the geometric and electronic structure of the active sites themselves is a challenging, yet essential task in the design of new heterogeneous catalysts. Such investigations are best implemented via a multipronged approach that comprises ambient pressure catalysis, surface science, and theory. Herein, we employ this strategy to understand the workings of NiAu single-atom alloy (SAA) catalysts for the selective nonoxidative dehydrogenation of ethanol to acetaldehyde and hydrogen. The atomic dispersion of Ni is paramount for selective ethanol to acetaldehyde conversion, and we show that even the presence of small Ni ensembles in the Au surface results in the formation of undesirable byproducts via C-C scission. Spectroscopic, kinetic, and theoretical investigations of the reaction mechanism reveal that both C-H and O-H bond cleavage steps are kinetically relevant and single Ni atoms are confirmed as the active sites. X-ray absorption spectroscopy studies allow us to follow the charge of the Ni atoms in the Au host before, under, and after a reaction cycle. Specifically, in the pristine state the Ni atoms carry a partial positive charge that increases upon coordination to the electronegative oxygen in ethanol and decreases upon desorption. This type of oxidation state cycling during reaction is similar to the behavior of single-site homogeneous catalysts. Given the unique electronic structure of many single-site catalysts, such a combined approach in which the atomic-scale catalyst structure and charge state of the single atom dopant can be monitored as a function of its reactive environment is a key step toward developing structure-function relationships that inform the design of new catalysts.

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