Fe–N–C electrocatalysts hold a great promise for Pt-free energy conversion, driving the electrocatalysis of oxygen reduction and evolution, oxidation of nitrogen fuels, and reduction of N2, CO2, and NOx. Nevertheless, the catalytic role of iron carbide, a component of nearly every pyrolytic Fe–N–C material, is at the focus of a heated controversy. We now resolve the debate by examining a broad range of Fe3C sites, spanning across many typical size distributions and carbon environments. Removing Fe3C selectively by a non-oxidizing acid reveals its inactivity towards two representative reactions in alkaline media, oxygen reduction and hydrazine oxidation. The activity is assigned to other pre-existing sites, most probably Fe–Nx. DFT calculations prove that the Fe3C surface binds O and N intermediates too strongly to be catalytic. By settling the argument on the catalytic role of Fe3C in alkaline electrocatalysis, we hope to spur innovation in this critical field.
- This article is part of the themed collection: 2021 PCCP HOT Articles