Mechanisms of Two-Electron and Four-Electron Electrochemical Oxygen Reduction Reactions at Nitrogen-Doped Reduced Graphene Oxide

Doped carbon-based systems have been extensively studied over the past decade as active electrocatalysts for both the two-electron (2e-) and four-electron (4e-) oxygen reduction reaction (ORR). However, the mechanisms for ORR are generally poorly understood. Here we report an extensive experimental and first-principles theoretical study of the ORR at nitrogen-doped reduced graphene oxides (NrGO). We synthesize three distinct NrGO catalysts and investigate their chemical and structural properties in detail via X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, infrared and Raman spectroscopy, high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and thin-film electrical conductivity. ORR experiments include the pH dependences of 2e- versus 4e- ORR selectivity, ORR onset potentials, Tafel slopes and H/D kinetic isotope effects. These experiments show very different ORR behavior for the three catalysts, both in terms of selectivity and the underlying mechanism which proceeds either via coupled proton-electron transfers (CPETs) or non-CPETs. Reasonable structural models developed from DFT rationalize this behavior. The key determinant between CPET vs. non-CPET mechanisms is the electron density at the Fermi level under operating ORR conditions. Regardless of the reaction mechanism or electrolyte pH, however, we identify the ORR active sites as sp2 carbons that are located next to oxide regions. This assignment highlights the importance of oxygen functional groups, while details of (modest) N-doping may still affect the overall catalytic activity, and likely also the selectivity, by modifying the general chemical environment around the active site.