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Water Oxidation by Amorphous Cobalt-Based Oxides: Volume Activity and Proton Transfer to Electrolyte Bases



Water oxidation in the neutral pH regime catalyzed by amorphous transition-metal oxides is of high interest in energy science. Crucial determinants of electrocatalytic activity were investigated for a cobalt-based oxide film electrodeposited at various thicknesses on inert electrodes. For water oxidation at low current densities, the turnover frequency (TOF) per cobalt ion of the bulk material stayed fully constant for variation of the thickness of the oxide film by a factor of 100 (from about 15 nm to 1.5 μm). Thickness variation changed neither the nanostructure of the outer film surface nor the atomic structure of the oxide catalyst significantly. These findings imply catalytic activity of the bulk hydrated oxide material. Nonclassical dependence on pH was observed. For buffered electrolytes with pKa values of the buffer base ranging from 4.7 (acetate) to 10.3 (hydrogen carbonate), the catalytic activity reflected the protonation state of the buffer base in the electrolyte solution directly and not the intrinsic catalytic properties of the oxide itself. It is proposed that catalysis of water oxidation occurs within the bulk hydrated oxide film at the margins of cobalt oxide fragments of molecular dimensions. At high current densities, the availability of a proton-accepting base at the catalyst–electrolyte interface controls the rate of water oxidation. The reported findings may be of general relevance for water oxidation catalyzed at moderate pH by amorphous transition-metal oxides.