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Solvation and Mobilization of Copper Active Sites in Zeolites by Ammonia: Consequences for the Catalytic Reduction of Nitrogen Oxides

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journal contribution
posted on 11.08.2020, 12:35 by Christopher Paolucci, John R. Di Iorio, William F. Schneider, Rajamani Gounder
ConspectusCopper-exchanged chabazite (Cu-CHA) zeolites are catalysts used in diesel emissions control for the abatement of nitrogen oxides (NOx) via selective catalytic reduction (SCR) reactions with ammonia as the reductant. The discovery of these materials in the early 2010s enabled a step-change improvement in diesel emissions aftertreatment technology. Key advantages of Cu-CHA zeolites over prior materials include their effectiveness at the lower temperatures characteristic of diesel exhaust, their durability under high-temperature hydrothermal conditions, and their resistance to poisoning from residual hydrocarbons present in exhaust. Fundamental catalysis research has since uncovered mechanistic and kinetic features that underpin the ability of Cu-CHA to selectively reduce NOx under strongly oxidizing conditions and to achieve improved NOx conversion relative to other zeolite frameworks, particularly at low exhaust temperatures and with ammonia instead of other reductants.One critical mechanistic feature is the NH3 solvation of exchanged Cu ions at low temperatures (<523 K) to create cationic Cu–amine coordination complexes that are ionically tethered to anionic Al framework sites. This ionic tethering confers regulated mobility that facilitates interconversion between mononuclear and binuclear Cu complexes, which is necessary to propagate SCR through a Cu2+/Cu+ redox cycle during catalytic turnover. This dynamic catalytic mechanism, wherein single and dual metal sites interconvert to mediate different half-reactions of the redox cycle, combines features canonically associated with homogeneous and heterogeneous reaction mechanisms.In this Account, we describe how a unified experimental and theoretical interrogation of Cu-CHA catalysts in operando provided quantitative evidence of regulated Cu ion mobility and its role in the SCR mechanism. This approach relied on new synthetic methods to prepare model Cu-CHA zeolites with varied active-site structures and spatial densities in order to verify that the kinetic and mechanistic models describe the catalytic behavior of a family of materials of diverse composition, and on new computational approaches to capture the active-site structure and dynamics under conditions representative of catalysis. Ex situ interrogation revealed that the Cu structure depends on the conditions for the zeolite synthesis, which influence the framework Al substitution patterns, and that statistical and electronic structure models can enumerate Cu site populations for a known Al distribution. This recognition unifies seemingly disparate spectroscopic observations and inferences regarding Cu ion structure and responses to different external conditions. SCR rates depend strongly on the Cu spatial density and zeolite composition in kinetic regimes where Cu+ oxidation with O2 becomes rate-limiting, as occurs at lower temperatures and under fuel-rich conditions. Transient experiments, ab initio molecular dynamics simulations, and statistical models relate these sensitivities to the mobility constraints imposed by the CHA framework on NH3-solvated Cu ions, which regulate the pore volume accessible to these ions and their ability to pair and complete the catalytic cycle. This highlights the key characteristics of the CHA framework that enable superior performance under low-temperature SCR reaction conditions.This work illustrates the power of precise control over a catalytic material, simultaneous kinetic and spectroscopic interrogation over a wide range of reaction conditions, and computational strategies tailored to capture those reaction conditions to reveal in microscopic detail the mechanistic features of a complex and widely practiced catalysis. In doing so, it highlights the key role of ion mobility in catalysis and thus potentially a more general phenomenon of reactant solvation and active site mobilization in reactions catalyzed by exchanged metal ions in zeolites.