Acta Phys. -Chim. Sin. ›› 2021, Vol. 37 ›› Issue (7): 2009043.doi: 10.3866/PKU.WHXB202009043

Special Issue: Electrocatalysis

• REVIEW • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Recent Progress in Metal-Free Electrocatalysts toward Ambient N2 Reduction Reaction

Tong Xu1, Benyuan Ma1, Jie Liang1, Luchao Yue1, Qian Liu1, Tingshuai Li1, Haitao Zhao1, Yonglan Luo1, Siyu Lu2, Xuping Sun1,*()   

  1. 1 Institute of Fundamental and Frontier Sciences, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu 610054, China
    2 Green Catalysis Center and College of Chemistry, Zhengzhou University, Zhengzhou 450001, China
  • Received:2020-09-11 Accepted:2020-11-18 Published:2020-11-24
  • Contact: Xuping Sun
  • About author:Xuping Sun, Email:


NH3 plays an important role in modern society as an essential building block in the manufacture of fertilizers, aqueous ammonia, plastics, explosives, and dyes. Additionally, it is regarded as a green alternative fuel, owing to its carbon-free nature, large hydrogen capacity, high energy density, and easy transportation. The Haber-Bosch process plays a dominant role in global NH3 synthesis; however, it involves high pressure and temperature and employs N2 and H2 as feeding gases, thus suffering from high energy consumption and substantial CO2 emission. As a promising alternative to the Haber-Bosch process, electrochemical N2 reduction enables sustainable and environmentally benign NH3 synthesis under ambient conditions. Moreover, its applied potential is compatible with intermittent solar, wind, and other renewable energies. However, efficient electrocatalysts are required to drive N2-to-NH3 conversion because of the extremely inert N≡N bond. To date, significant efforts have been made to explore high-performance catalysts with high efficiency and selectivity. Generally, noble-metal catalysts exhibit efficient performance for the NRR, but their scarcity and high cost limit their large-scale application. Therefore, considerable attention has been focused on earth-abundant transition-metal (TM) catalysts that can use empty or unoccupied orbitals to accept the lone-pair electrons of N2, while donating the abundant d-orbital electrons to the antibonding orbitals of N2. However, these catalysts may release metal ions, leading to environmental pollution. Most of these TM electrocatalysts may also favor the formation of TM—H bonds, facilitating the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) during the electrocatalytic reaction. Recent years have seen a surge in the exploration of metal-free catalysts (MFCs). MFCs mainly include carbon-based catalysts (CBCs) and some boron-based and phosphorus-based catalysts. Generally, CBCs exhibit a porous structure and high surface area, which are favorable for exposing more active sites and providing rich accessible channels for mass/electron transfer. Moreover, the Lewis acid sites of most metal-free compounds could accept the lone-pair electron of N2 and adsorb N2 molecules by forming nonmetal—N bonds, further widening their potential for electrocatalytic NRR. Compared with metal-based catalysts, the occupied orbitals of metal-free catalysts can only form covalent bonds or conjugated π bonds, hindering electron donation from the electrocatalyst to N2 and molecular activation. In this review, we summarize the recent progress in the design and development of metal-free electrocatalysts (MFCs) for the ambient NRR, including carbon-based catalysts, boron-based catalysts, and phosphorus-based catalysts. In particular, heteroatom doping (N, O, S, B, P, F, and co-dopants), organic polymers, carbon nitride, and defect engineering are highlighted. We also discuss strategies to boost NRR performance and provide an outlook on the development perspectives of MFCs.

Key words: Electrochemistry, Metal-free catalysts, Ambient condition, N2 reduction reaction, NH3 synthesis