New promising catalyst: Skoltech researchers continue their research into tungsten pentaboride

A group of researchers led by Professor Alexander Kvashnin from Skoltech’s Energy Transition Center has published a new paper on tungsten pentaboride, WB5-x, a substance that has a number of advantages over traditional catalysts. Scientists have identified and studied the stable surfaces of the WB5-x crystal and revealed that the new catalyst is not poisoned by sulfur-containing impurities, which means it does not lose its activity. Tungsten pentaboride can potentially be used as a catalyst or a co-catalyst in filters for cleaning industrial exhaust gasses, mining precious metals, photocatalytic production of hydrogen, and in other fields. The study is published in the Scientific Reports journal.

Previously, scientists synthesized tungsten pentaboride WB5-x, refined the method for synthesizing superhard tungsten boride powder together with Tomsk Polytechnic University, and revealed that the synthesized substance significantly increases the efficiency of reactions to convert carbon dioxide into methane and to produce hydrogen from an aqueous solution of ethanol.

“In the new paper, we found out that the more boron in a compound, the better its catalytic properties. This seemed rather paradoxical to us because, as a rule, the active centers of the catalyst are metal atoms. We have the highest tungsten boride, that is, among the compounds of boron and metal it contains the largest amounts of boron, so tungsten pentaboride seems to be a promising catalyst,” said the leading author of the study, Aleksandra Radina, a PhD student of the Materials Science and Engineering program at Skoltech. 

The authors found stable surfaces of the compound: one has mainly boron on top, the other has tungsten atoms. Having compared them, the researchers concluded that boron actively participates in both adsorption and catalysis processes.

The study made another important conclusion: tungsten pentaboride is not susceptible to poisoning from sulfur-containing compounds. This means that its activity will not be affected by so-called contact poisons, which include substances containing oxygen, sulfur, and metal ions. According to the authors, poisoning of catalysts is a big problem. For example, oil is purified from any sulfur compounds, but it still contains a small amount of it, so the catalysts will work less time due to their poisoning.

“Catalysts based on noble and rare earth metals are poisoned by sulfur-containing compounds, so it was important for us to consider a large number of gas molecules and their positions on the surface of the material. We examined 10 molecules of atmospheric gasses, including CO2. According to preliminary data, our catalyst is not poisoned. This is a significant advantage, in addition to the price,” Aleksandra Radina continued.

Image. Graphical abstract of the study — CO oxidation reaction at one of the stable surfaces of WB5-x. Credit: Alexander Kvashnin.