Insights into Active Sites and Mechanisms of Benzyl Alcohol Oxidation on Nickel–Iron Oxyhydroxide Electrodes

Lingze Wei, Md Delowar Hossain, Michael J Boyd, Jaime Aviles-Acosta , Melissa E Kreider, Adam C Nielander, Michaela Burke Stevens, Thomas F Jaramillo, Michal Bajdich, Christopher Hahn
ACS Catalysis

The electrochemical oxidation of bio-derived molecules has recently garnered interest for its potential in opening electrified synthetic pathways toward value-added products. Herein, we investigate the electrochemical conversion of benzyl alcohol (BA) to benzaldehyde and benzoate on nickel–iron (Fe ∼ 7–18%) electrodes as a model system to understand reaction mechanisms and environmental conditions that can transform these molecules. Our results indicate a strong correlation between benzyl alcohol oxidation (BAO) onset potentials and Ni(II/III) redox peak positions, highlighting the potential role that lower oxidation states of nickel, i.e., Ni3+, can play in BAO catalysis. Our work on the Ni2+/3+ system complements mechanisms that involve higher oxidation states of Ni as reported by others. We note that the Ni redox position and thus BAO onset is impacted by Fe incorporation during electrochemistry from unpurified electrolytes, which can resemble standard reactor operating conditions. We perform a systematic computational investigation into BAO and provide density functional theory (DFT) insights into how the redox mechanism has been such a prominent focus of alcohol oxidations. This includes the mode of BA adsorption and the nature of the adsorption site; upon conversion of the Ni2+ surface to active Ni3+ via hydroxyl deprotonation, BAO is thermodynamically downhill. Our DFT study also introduces the possibility of a vacancy-driven mechanism, though expected to be less prevalent during catalysis than the redox mechanism for a Ni3+ surface. Through the systematic investigation of experimental reaction conditions and computational free energy thermodynamics, we have gained valuable insights into BAO reaction mechanisms that inform catalytic activity. Our study opens avenues for further design and development of catalyst active sites for the oxidation of related organic molecules.

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