Given the urgency of achieving the forthcoming zero emission targets, the research of green fuels and efficient catalysts able to easily convert them in other valuable compounds is fundamental. The work presented in this thesis is focused on the application of an innovative spectroscopic technique, the operando Soft X-Rays NEXAFS spectroscopy, in order to investigate the surface reactivity of heterogeneous catalysts. In fact, it is well known the importance that operando characterizations have acquired in recent years, allowing to study a material at its working conditions. Since the technique requires the use of Synchrotron Radiation and a specific experimental setup, all the measurements reported in this thesis have been performed exploiting a home made reaction cell developed at the APE-HE beamline, at Elettra Synchrotron (Trieste). In this thesis work, we investigated the possibility of coupling the operando NEXAFS technique with other in situ spectroscopies, together with standard ex situ characterizations and computational simulations. This multitechnique approach allowed to extract the maximum potential of the technique, addressing its role as a key tool in the optic of speeding up the design of efficient heterogeneous catalysts.
The catalytic reactions investigated in this thesis are focused on methanol valorization, given its great potential in numerous applications related to the energy transition. In detail, we focused our first investigation on methanol production through the direct partial oxidation of methane, catalysed by a CeO2/CuO composite synthesized using a scalable and green milling process. We exploited the combination of in situ DRIFT and operando Soft X-Ray NEXAFS spectroscopies to monitor at the same time the electronic structure modifications occurring at the catalyst surface and the adsorbates evolution during the different reaction steps.
The operando analysis of the Cu L2,3 and Ce M4,5 edges during the catalyst thermal activation allowed us to detect a charge transfer from Ce3+ surface sites to Cu2+ atoms, resulting in the formation of reactive sites close to the CeO2/CuO interface. When the sample was exposed to CH4 at 250°C and at a pressure of 1 bar, a Cu2+ → Cu+ reduction was observed, indicating that the catalyst is able to activate the methane molecule. At the same time, DRIFT spectra shown the formation of methoxy and formate species, that are products of methane activation on the surface. Adding an oxidizing agent (O2), Cu+ sites were re-oxidized to Cu2+, together with the disappearing of the methoxy and formate related structures in the DRIFT spectra. The results indicated the reversibility of the chemical modifications occurring at the catalyst surface. During the operando NEXAFS experiment, the reaction products were monitored with an online micro-GC: the main products observed during the reaction were CO2, H2O, CH2O and CH3OH, indicating that total and partial oxidation of methane were occurring. As a comparison, an equivalent experiment has been conducted on a similar CeO2/CuO catalyst synthetized with a conventional impregnation method. In this case, no spectroscopic modification were observed with both NEXAFS and DRIFT techniques, confirming that the synthetic method used is crucial in creating specific active sites for methane activation and oxidation. The experimental results have been validated through DFT calculations, which confirmed that when CuO and CeO2 surfaces merge during the synthesis, a net charge transfer from Ce to Cu atoms occurs in proximity of the CeO2 − CuO interface. Another promising route to valorize methanol is represented by its catalytic decomposition to syngas mixture (H2 + CO), whose reaction mechanism was investigated in the second part of the thesis. Indeed, one major challenge for this reaction is related to the quest for stable, cost-effective, and selective catalysts operating below 400 °C. In the present study, we illustrate a surface reactivity study of a Ni3Sn4 catalyst working at 250 °C, by combining density functional theory (DFT), operando NEXAFS at ambient pressure, in situ XPS and high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HR-TEM). For Ni3Sn4, we discovered that the catalytic reaction is driven by surface tin-oxide phases, able to protect the underlying Ni atoms from irreversible chemical modifications, increasing the catalyst durability. Moreover, exploiting the online micro-GC connected to the operando NEXAFS reaction cell and by comparing the results with a Ni3Sn2 compound, we found that Sn content plays a key role in enhancing the H2 selectivity, with respect to secondary products such as CO2. These findings open new perspectives for the engineering of scalable and low-cost catalysts for hydrogen production.