New system measures adsorption and release of gases by nanocrystals
11 August 2013
A new system that can directly measure the manner in which nanocrystals adsorb and release hydrogen and other gases could result in more efficient catalytic converters on autos, improved batteries and more sensitive gas sensors. The technique, developed by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is described in a paper published in the journal Nature Materials.
A quantitative understanding of nanocrystal phase transformations would enable more efficient energy conversion and catalysis, but has been hindered by difficulties in directly monitoring well-characterized nanoscale systems in reactive environments. We present a new in situ luminescence-based probe enabling direct quantification of nanocrystal phase transformations, applied here to the hydriding transformation of palladium nanocrystals.
Our approach reveals the intrinsic kinetics and thermodynamics of nanocrystal phase transformations, eliminating complications of substrate strain, ligand effects and external signal transducers. Clear size-dependent trends emerge in nanocrystals long accepted to be bulk-like in behavior. Statistical mechanical simulations show these trends to be a consequence of nanoconfinement of a thermally driven, first-order phase transition: near the phase boundary, critical nuclei of the new phase are comparable in size to the nanocrystal itself. Transformation rates are then unavoidably governed by nanocrystal dimensions.
Our results provide a general framework for understanding how nanoconfinement fundamentally impacts broad classes of thermally driven solid-state phase transformations relevant to hydrogen storage, catalysis, batteries and fuel cells.—Bardhan et al.
Progress in using nanocrystals in adoption and desorption applications has been hindered by limitations in existing methods for measuring the physical and chemical changes that take place in individual nanocrystals during the process. As a result, advances have been achieved by trial-and-error and have been limited to engineered samples and specific geometries.
The new method is based on a standard procedure called fluorescence spectroscopy. A laser beam is focused on the target nanocrystals, causing them to fluoresce. As the nanocrystals adsorb the gas molecules, the strength of their fluorescent dims and as they release the gas molecules, it recovers.
The technique is simple, direct and uses off-the shelf instruments so other researchers should have no difficulty using it. Our technique is simple, direct and uses off-the shelf instruments so other researchers should have no difficulty using it.
The fluorescence effect is very subtle and very sensitive to differences in nanocrystal size. To see it you must use nanocrystals that are uniform in size.—Rizia Bardhan, lead author
That is one reason why the effect wasn’t observed before: Fabrication techniques such as ball milling and other wet-chemical approaches that have been widely used produce nanocrystals in a range of different sizes. These differences are enough to mask the effect.
To test their technique, the researchers studied hydrogen gas sensing with nanocrystals made out of palladium—chosen because it is very stable and it readily releases adsorbed hydrogen. They used hydrogen because of the interest in using it for transportation. One of the major technical obstacles to this scenario is developing a safe and cost-effective storage method. A nanocrystal-based metal hydride system is one of the approaches under development.
The measurements they made revealed that the size of the nanocrystals have a much stronger effect on the rate that the material can adsorb and release hydrogen and the amount of hydrogen that the material can absorb than previously expected—all key properties for a hydrogen storage system. The smaller the particle size, the faster the material can absorb the gas, the more gas it can absorb and faster it can release it.
The researchers also determined that the adsorption/desorption rate was determined by just three factors: pressure, temperature and nanocrystal size. They did not find that additional factors such as defects and strain had a significant effect as previously suggested. Based on this new information, they created a simple computer simulation that can predict the adsorption/desorption rates of various types and size ranges of nanocrystals with a variety of different gases.
This makes it possible to optimize a wide range of nanocrystal applications, including hydrogen storage systems, catalytic converters, batteries, fuel cells and supercapacitors, Bardhan said.
Bardhan, who was at Lawrence Livermore, is now at Vanderbilt University. Collaborators in the development were Vanderbilt Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cary Pint, Ali Javey from the University of California, Berkeley and Lester Hedges, Stephen Whitelam and Jeffrey Urban from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Rizia Bardhan, Lester O. Hedges, Cary L. Pint, Ali Javey, Stephen Whitelam & Jeffrey J. Urban (2013) Uncovering the intrinsic size dependence of hydriding phase transformations in nanocrystals. Nature Materials doi: 10.1038/nmat3716
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