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Identifying the Role of Dynamic Surface Hydroxides in the Dehydrogenation of Ti-Doped NaAlH4


Solid-state metal hydrides are prime candidates to replace compressed hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles due to their high volumetric capacities. Sodium aluminum hydride has long been studied as an archetype for higher-capacity metal hydrides, with improved reversibility demonstrated through the addition of titanium catalysts; however, atomistic mechanisms for surface processes, including hydrogen desorption, are still uncertain. Here, operando and ex situ measurements from a suite of diagnostic tools probing multiple length scales are combined with ab initio simulations to provide a detailed and unbiased view of the evolution of the surface chemistry during hydrogen release. In contrast to some previously proposed mechanisms, the titanium dopant does not directly facilitate desorption at the surface. Instead, oxidized surface species, even on well-protected NaAlH4 samples, evolve during dehydrogenation to form surface hydroxides with differing levels of hydrogen saturation. Additionally, the presence of these oxidized species leads to considerably lower computed barriers for H2 formation compared to pristine hydride surfaces, suggesting that oxygen may actively participate in hydrogen release, rather than merely inhibiting diffusion as is commonly presumed. These results demonstrate how close experiment-theory feedback can elucidate mechanistic understanding of complex metal hydride chemistry and potentially impactful roles of unavoidable surface impurities.

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