Colloidal synthesis and characterization of molybdenum and tungsten-based phosphide electrocatalysts for hydrogen evolution reaction

Nkabinde, Siyabonga Sipho
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The production of hydrogen gas via hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) in acidic media has become an important area of research in light of the increasing demand for sustainable and environmentally friendly sources of energy. However, its large-scale production is currently being hindered by the lack of inexpensive and highly efficient non-noble electrocatalysts. Transition metal phosphides (TMPs) have transpired as favourable catalysts that can be prepared from cheap and readily available sources. Up to now, TMPs have been commonly prepared using solid-state and solid-gas reactions, which rely on the use of high temperatures and hence generate inhomogeneity in the prepared materials. Inhomogeneous materials are unattractive as catalysts because the correlation between a catalyst and its structural features cannot be systematically studied. For this reason, colloidal synthesis has emerged as a powerful method in the synthesis of TMPs as it allows for control over the resulting physical features (i.e. size, morphology, crystal phase, crystallinity etc.). The ability to tailor these physical properties provides room for improving the catalytic activity. By using the colloidal synthesis method, we have successfully prepared molybdenum and tungsten-based phosphide nanoparticles and studied the effect of their physical features on HER activity. In chapter 3, we report a facile colloidal synthesis method to produce an amorphous phase of molybdenum phosphide (MoP) by using trioctylphosphine (TOP) as a phosphorus source, molybdenum pentachloride (MoCl5) as a metal source and 1-octadecene (1-ODE) as a solvent/reducing agent. The use of the forementioned precursors promoted the formation of very small, shape controlled and well dispersed amorphous molybdenum phosphide (MoP) nanoparticles. Annealing (800 °C) of the amorphous MoP nanoparticles resulted in the formation of a crystalline MoP phase with a slightly bigger size but retained its dispersity and morphology upon exposure to high temperature. The amorphous and crystalline MoP phases were compared as HER electrocatalysts. HER results indicated that the amorphous MoP phase exhibited enhanced catalytic activity in hydrogen evolution reaction compared to the crystalline MoP phase. The high activity displayed by the amorphous MoP was attributed to the small sizes and the high density of unsaturated active sites characteristic of nanoparticles lacking long range crystalline order.
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Faculty of Science, School of Chemistry, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2022