Density fluctuations as door-opener for diffusion on crowded surfaces

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Science  15 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6428, pp. 715-718
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav4143

A path through a crowd

Catalytic reactions on surfaces occur at pressures at which the surfaces are completely covered with adsorbed molecules. It would seem that this arrangement would interfere with reactants encountering one another through diffusion processes. Henß et al. used high-speed scanning tunneling microscopy to follow the diffusion of oxygen atoms on a ruthenium surface that was fully covered with carbon monoxide (CO) molecules (see the Perspective by Magnussen). Oxygen-atom diffusion was unexpectedly fast. A theoretical model revealed that CO diffusion appears to open pathways for oxygen-atom movement.

Science, this issue p. 715; see also p. 695


How particles can move on a catalyst surface that, under the conditions of an industrial process, is highly covered by adsorbates and where most adsorption sites are occupied has remained an open question. We have studied the diffusion of O atoms on a fully CO-covered Ru(0001) surface by means of high-speed/variable-temperature scanning tunneling microscopy combined with density functional theory calculations. Atomically resolved trajectories show a surprisingly fast diffusion of the O atoms, almost as fast as on the clean surface. This finding can be explained by a “door-opening” mechanism in which local density fluctuations in the CO layer intermittently create diffusion pathways on which the O atoms can move with low activation energy.

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