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A Pyridinic Fe-N4 Macrocycle Effectively Models the Active Sites in Fe/N-Doped Carbon Electrocatalysts

revised on 23.03.2020, 22:50 and posted on 24.03.2020, 06:30 by Travis Marshall-Roth, Nicole J. Libretto, Alexandra T. Wrobel, Kevin Anderton, Nathan D. Ricke, Troy Van Voorhis, Jeffrey T. Miller, Yogesh Surendranath
Iron- and nitrogen-doped carbon (Fe-N-C) materials are leading candidates to replace platinum in fuel cells, but their active site structures are poorly understood. A leading postulate is that iron active sites in this class of materials exist in an Fe-N4 pyridinic ligation environment. Yet, molecular Fe-based catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) generally feature pyrrolic coordination and pyridinic Fe-N4 catalysts are, to the best of our knowledge, non-existent. We report the synthesis and characterization of a molecular pyridinic hexaazacyclophane macrocycle, (phen2N2)Fe, and compare its spectroscopic, electrochemical, and catalytic properties for oxygen reduction to a prototypical Fe-N-C material, as well as iron phthalocyanine, (Pc)Fe, and iron octaethylporphyrin, (OEP)Fe, prototypical pyrrolic iron macrocycles. N 1s XPS signatures for coordinated N atoms in (phen2N2)Fe are positively shifted relative to (Pc)Fe and (OEP)Fe, and overlay with those of Fe-N-C. Likewise, spectroscopic XAS signatures of (phen2N2)Fe are distinct from those of both (Pc)Fe and (OEP)Fe, and are remarkably similar to those of Fe-N-C with compressed Fe–N bond lengths of 1.97 Å in (phen2N2)Fe that are close to the average 1.94 Å length in Fe-N-C. Electrochemical studies establish that both (Pc)Fe and (phen2N2)Fe have relatively high Fe(III/II) potentials at ~0.6 V, ~300 mV positive of (OEP)Fe. The ORR onset potential is found to directly correlate with the Fe(III/II) potential leading to a ~300 mV positive shift in the onset of ORR for (Pc)Fe and (phen2N2)Fe relative to (OEP)Fe. Consequently, the ORR onset for (phen2N2)Fe and (Pc)Fe is within 150 mV of Fe-N-C. Unlike (OEP)Fe and (Pc)Fe, (phen2N2)Fe displays excellent selectivity for 4-electron ORR with <4% maximum H2O2 production, comparable to Fe-N-C materials. The aggregate spectroscopic and electrochemical data establish (phen2N2)Fe as a pyridinic iron macrocycle that effectively models Fe-N-C active sites, thereby providing a rich molecular platform for understanding this important class of catalytic materials.


Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis


Email Address of Submitting Author


Massachusetts Institute of Technology


United States

ORCID For Submitting Author


Declaration of Conflict of Interest

The authors declare the following competing financial interest(s): T.M.-R and Y.S. are inventors on patent application 62/818,284, submitted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that covers the hexaazamacrocycle iron complex and related catalyst ink described in this work.