Understanding how to control the movement of protons and electrons is crucial to the design of fast, efficient electrocatalysts for H2 production and oxidation based on earth-abundant metals. Our work seeks to address fundamental questions about proton movement. We have demonstrated that incorporating a pendant amine functioning as a proton relay in the second coordination sphere of a metal complex helps proton mobility, resulting in faster and more energy-efficient catalysts. Proton-transfer reactions can be rate-limiting and are influenced by several factors, such as pKa values, steric effects, hydrogen bonding, and solvation/desolvation of the exogenous base and acid employed. The presence of multiple protonation sites introduces branching points along the catalytic cycle, making less productive pathways accessible or leading to the formation of stable off-cycle species. Using ligands with only one pendant amine mitigates this problem and results in catalysts with high rates for production of H2, although generally at higher overpotentials. For H2 oxidation catalysts, iron complexes with a high H2 binding affinity were developed. However, these iron complexes had a pKa mismatch between the protonated metal center and the protonated pendant amine, and consequently intramolecular proton movement was slow. Taken altogether, our results demonstrate the necessity of optimizing the entire catalytic cycle because optimization of a specific catalytic step can negatively influence another step and not necessarily lead to a better catalytic performance. We discuss a general procedure, based on thermodynamic arguments, which allows the simultaneous minimization of the free-energy change of each catalytic step, yielding a nearly flat free-energy surface, with no large barriers due to energy mismatches from either high- or low-energy intermediates.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Inorganic Chemistry
- Physical and Theoretical Chemistry