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Researchers show that single Pt atoms can perform CO oxidation at low temperatures; implications for catalytic converters

Researchers from Washington State University and Tufts University have “unambiguously” shown for the first time that individual Pt atoms on a well-defined Cu2O film are able to perform CO oxidation (i.e., converting CO to CO2)—a chemical reaction that is commonly used in catalytic converters to remove CO from car exhaust—at low temperatures.

The research, published in the journal Nature Catalysis, could improve catalytic converter design and also has major implications in the field of computational catalysis.

As engines have become more efficient, their combustion temperatures have lowered, making it harder for catalytic converters to work and creating, paradoxically, more harmful emissions.

While studying low-temperature catalysts, the researchers, led by Jean-Sabin McEwen, assistant professor in WSU’s Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, and Charles Sykes, a professor of chemistry at Tufts University, became interested in single metal atoms and their ability to act as catalysts at lower temperatures.

Most of the harmful chemicals in your exhaust such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide are emitted when starting up the engine. The lower the temperature, the harder it is to neutralize these harmful chemicals.

—Jean-Sabin McEwen

Carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide

In their paper, the researchers demonstrated that the reaction can work with single platinum atoms on a copper oxide support near room temperature. The single platinum atom holds the carbon monoxide in place while the copper oxide supplies the oxygen to convert it into carbon dioxide.

Sykes sees this breakthrough influencing the next generation of low-temperature catalytic converters.

This is a benchmark study that can guide the design of the next generation of low temperature catalytic converters.

—Charles Sykes

Since catalytic converters use rare and expensive metals like platinum, reducing the use of those elements down to the single atom level could also reduce costs, he added.

The research also conclusively answers a longstanding debate in the scientific world on whether a single metal atom could act as a catalyst for the oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide at low temperatures or whether such a reaction requires a cluster of atoms.

The Tufts team used highly advanced scanning tunneling microscopes to image individual atoms and molecules, while McEwen’s team used a supercomputer to model the chemical reaction mechanism and perform calculations.

McEwen and Sykes plan to extend this line of research by exploring other metals beyond platinum—especially cheaper metals such as copper.

McEwen received a CAREER award and an EAGER award from the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the research at Washington State University along with a grant from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund. The computations were done at the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The work at Tufts was funded by a grant from the Department of Energy Catalysis program.


  • Andrew J. Therrien, Alyssa J. R. Hensley, Matthew D. Marcinkowski, Renqin Zhang, Felicia R. Lucci, Benjamin Coughlin, Alex C. Schilling, Jean-Sabin McEwen & E. Charles H. Sykes (2018) “An atomic-scale view of single-site Pt catalysis for low-temperature CO oxidation” Nature Catalysis doi: 10.1038/s41929-018-0028-2


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