We address the formation of the energetically most favourable single oxygen vacancies in ceria nanoparticles (CeO2)n focusing on their size dependence. We study a series of structures with increasing number of CeO2 units (n = 21, 30, 40 and 80) that, according to well tested interatomic-potential calculations, approach the global minima for these particle sizes. The structures thus obtained are refined by means of density functional (DF) methods, modified by the on-site Coulomb correction. Subsequent DF calculations are performed to quantify and analyse the depletion of atomic O from the nanoparticles that results in the formation of a vacancy Ovac. We show that (i) removal of a low- (two-)coordinate O atom from ceria species requires the lowest energy, in line with evidence from other metal oxides; (ii) the depletion of such O atoms from the nanoparticles is strongly facilitated compared to extended (even irregular) surfaces; (iii) increase of the particle size is accompanied by a dramatic decrease of the Ovac formation energy, implying that at certain sizes this energy should reach a minimum; (iv) the size dependence of the Ovac formation energy is driven by the electrostatics, thus enabling the prediction of the most easily removable O atoms by analysing the distribution of the electrostatic potential in the pristine stoichiometric (vacancy-free) ceria systems. Our findings provide a key to rationalize the observed spectacularly enhanced reactivity of ceria nanostructures.
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