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UK: Nanoscale Research

Taking a Peak at Nanoclusters

| Editor: Alexander Stark

Catalytic chemical reactions contribute substantially to the global GDP. (sample image)
Catalytic chemical reactions contribute substantially to the global GDP. (sample image) (Source: Pixabay / CC0)

Using the latest developments in microscopy, experts in the Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre (nmRC) at the University of Nottingham have taken a first peak into the private life of atomic clusters.

Nottingham/UK — Having already succeeded in ‘filming’ inter-molecular chemical reactions — using the electron beam of a transmission electron microscope (TEM) as a stop-frame imaging tool — they have now achieved time-resolved imaging of atomic-scale dynamics and chemical transformations promoted by metal nanoclusters. This has enabled them to rank 14 different metals both in order of their bonding with carbon and their catalytic activity, showing significant variation across the Periodic Table of Elements. Their latest work, ‘Comparison of atomic scale dynamics for the middle and late transition metal nanocatalysts’, has been published in Nature Communications.

Thanks to the recent advances in microscopy and spectroscopy the scientists now know a great deal about the behaviour of molecules and atoms. However, the structure and dynamics of atomic-scale clusters of metallic elements remains a mystery. Andrei Khlobystov, Professor of Nanomaterials and Director of nmRC,said that the complex atomic dynamics revealed directly by imaging in real time sheds light on atomistic workings of nanocatalysts.

Contribution to Global GDP

The atomic-scale dynamics of metal nanoclusters determine their functional and chemical properties such as catalytic activity — their ability to increase the rate of a chemical reaction. Many key industrial processes currently rely on nanocatalysts such as water purification; fuel cell technologies; energy storage;and bio-diesel production.

According to Professor Khlobystov argues that catalytic chemical reactions contribute substantially to the global GDP. Understanding the dynamic behaviour of nanoclusters at the atomic level was therefore an important and urgent task. However, the combined challenge of non-uniform structures of nanocatalysts — for example,distribution of sizes, shapes, crystal phases — coexisting within the same material and their highly dynamic nature — nanoclusters undergo extensive structural and, in some cases, chemical transformations during catalysis —makes elucidation of the atomistic mechanisms of their behaviour virtually impossible.

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From Single-Molecule Dynamics to Atomic Clusters

Professor Khlobystov led the Anglo-German collaboration that harnessed the impact of the electron beam (e-beam) in the transmission electron microscopy (TEM) for imaging single-molecule dynamics. By employing the e-beam simultaneously as an imaging tool and a source of energy to drive chemical reactions they succeeded at filming reactions of molecules. The research was published last year in ACS Nano, a flagship nanoscience and nanotechnology journal, and selected as ACS Editor’s Choice due to its potential for broad public interest.

Instead of laboratory flasks or test tubes, they employ the World’s tiniest test tubes — single walled carbon nanotubes — atomically thin cylinders of carbon with internal diameters of 1-2 nm that have held a Guinness World Record since 2005.

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A Periodic Table in Ananotest Tube

The scientists use these carbon nanotubes to sample tiny clusters of chemical elements, each consisting of only a few dozens of atoms. By entrapping the nanoclusters of a series of related metallic elements they effectively created in a Periodic Table in ananotest tube, allowing a global comparison of chemistry of transition metals across the Periodic Table. This has always been extremely challenging because most metal nanoclusters are highly sensitive to air. The combination of the nanotest tube and TEM allows them to watch not only the dynamics of metal nanoclusters but also their bonding with carbon that show a clear link with the metal’s position in the Periodic Table.

Ute Kaiser, Professor in Experimental Physics and Leader of the Group of Electron Microscopy of Materials Science at Ulm University said that aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy and the low-dimensional materials, such as nanotubes filled with metal nanoclusters, were an ideal match for each other because they allowed an effective combination of advances in analytical and theoretical chemistry with latest developments in electron microscopy, leading to new understanding of phenomena at the atomic scale, such as nanocatalysis in this work.

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