First principles density functional theoretical calculations were carried out to examine and compare the reaction paths and ensembles for the electrocatalytic oxidation of methanol and formic acid in the presence of solution and applied electrochemical potential. Methanol proceeds via both direct and indirect pathways which are governed by the initial C–H and O–H bond activation, respectively. The primary path requires an ensemble size of between 3–4 Pt atoms, whereas the secondary path is much less structure sensitive, requiring only 1–2 metal atoms. The CO that forms inhibits the surface at potentials below 0.66 V NHE. The addition of Ru results in bifunctional as well as electronic effects that lower the onset potential for CO oxidation. In comparison, formic acid proceeds via direct, indirect and formate pathways. The direct path, which involves the activation of the C–H bond followed by the rapid activation of the O–H bond, was calculated to be the predominant path especially at potentials greater than 0.6 V. The activation of the O–H bond of formic acid has a very low barrier and readily proceeds to form surface formate intermediates as the first step of the indirect formate path. Adsorbed formate, however, was calculated to be very stable, and thus acts as a spectator species. At potentials below 0.6 V NHE, CO, which forms via the non-Faradaic hydrolytic splitting of the C–O bond over stepped or defect sites in the indirect path, can build up and poison the surface. The results indicate that the direct path only requires a single Pt atom whereas the indirect path requires a larger surface ensemble and stepped sites. This suggests that alloys will not have the same influence on formic acid oxidation as they do for methanol oxidation.
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