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Probing individual single atom electrocatalyst sites by advanced analytical scanning transmission electron microscopy

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Electrochimica Acta
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Single atom electrocatalysts (SAEs) are promising next-generation materials for promoting a variety of important reactions, such as the oxygen reduction, nitrogen reduction, and CO2 reduction reactions. While bulk characterization techniques such as X-ray absorption spectroscopy and Mössbauer spectroscopy have significantly enhanced our understanding of these catalysts, direct probing of individual single metal atom sites at the atomic scale is necessary to understand local variations in the properties of these sites and accelerate design and synthesis of improved SAEs. Aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) has become a powerful tool for providing this type of atomic-scale information about SAE metal sites. These sites are typically unstable under the electron beam, however, which, in combination with conventional acquisition methods and detectors, has limited the type and quantity of information obtainable by spectroscopic STEM techniques. Here, we map multiple individual SAE metal sites in a nitrogen-doped carbon containing atomically dispersed Fe and Re (FeReNC) at the atomic scale by direct electron detection electron energy-loss spectroscopy (EELS). Direct electron detection provides an improved signal-to-noise ratio over conventional scintillator-based detectors and enables detection and real space localization of weak signals. In addition, we demonstrate an automated method for identification of metal atom positions, placement of the probe on these sites, and simultaneous EELS and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopic (EDS) signal acquisition. This simultaneous acquisition of EELS and EDS provides access to the composition and bonding of a wide range of SAE metal sites. Focusing the probe directly on the metal sites also increases the relevant data acquisition rate by more than an order of magnitude over two-dimensional mapping, enabling improved statistical measurements of site properties. The versatility, sensitivity, and speed that these techniques provide enhances our ability to probe the local elemental and chemical environment of a large number of individual SAE metal site structures at the atomic scale, enabling an improved understanding of the variations in the local properties of these electrocatalysts to be gained. As a result, significantly increased information about individual metal sites will be available to future electrochemical studies through these techniques, accelerating the development of advanced SAEs.