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Dendritic Assembly of Gold Nanoparticles during Fuel-Forming Electrocatalysis

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We observe the dendritic assembly of alkanethiol-capped gold nanoparticles on a glassy carbon support during electrochemical reduction of protons and CO2. We find that the primary mechanism by which surfactant-ligated gold nanoparticles lose surface area is by taking a random walk along the support, colliding with their neighbors, and fusing to form dendrites, a type of fractal aggregate. A random walk model reproduces the fractal dimensionality of the dendrites observed experimentally. The rate at which the dendrites form is strongly dependent on the solubility of the surfactant in the electrochemical double layer under the conditions of electrolysis. Since alkanethiolate surfactants reductively desorb at potentials close to the onset of CO2 reduction, they do not poison the catalytic activity of the gold nanoparticles. Although catalyst mobility is typically thought to be limited for room-temperature electrochemistry, our results demonstrate that nanoparticle mobility is significant under conditions at which they electrochemically catalyze gas evolution, even in the presence of a high surface area carbon and binder. A careful understanding of the electrolyte- and polarization-dependent nanoparticle aggregation kinetics informs strategies for maintaining catalyst dispersion during fuel-forming electrocatalysis.

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