Revisiting the Electrochemical Nitrogen Reduction on Molybdenum and Iron Carbides: Promising Catalysts or False Positives?

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The electrochemical dinitrogen reduction reaction (NRR) has recently gained much interest as it can potentially produce ammonia from renewable intermittent electricity and replace the Haber-Bosch process. Previous literature studies report Fe- and Mo-carbides as promising electrocatalysts for the NRR with activities higher than other metals. However, recent understanding of extraneous ammonia and nitrogen oxide contaminations have challenged previously published results. Here, we critically assess the NRR performance of several Fe- and Mo-carbides reported as promising by implementing a strict experimental protocol to minimize the effect of impurities. The successful synthesis of α-Mo2C decorated carbon nanosheets, α-Mo2C nanoparticles, θ-Fe3C nanoparticles, and χ-Fe5C2 nanoparticles was confirmed by X-ray diffraction, scanning and transmission electron microscopy, and X-ray photoelectron and Mössbauer spectroscopy. After performing NRR chronoamperometric tests with the synthesized materials, the ammonia concentrations varied between 37 and 124 ppb and are in close proximity with the estimated ammonia background level. Notwithstanding the impracticality of these extremely low ammonia yields, the observed ammonia did not originate from the electrochemical nitrogen reduction but from unavoidable extraneous ammonia and NOx impurities. These findings are in contradiction with earlier literature studies and show that these carbide materials are not active for the NRR under the employed conditions. This further emphasizes the importance of a strict protocol in order to distinguish between a promising NRR catalyst and a false positive.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1649-1661
JournalACS Catalysis
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • ammonia
  • carbide
  • electrocatalysis
  • impurities
  • iron
  • molybdenum
  • nitrogen reduction reaction


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