Incorporation of Zn atoms into a nanosize Cu lattice is known to alter the electronic properties of Cu, improving catalytic performance in a number of industrially important reactions. However the structural influence of Zn on the Cu phase is not well studied. Here, we show that Cu nano-clusters modified with increasing concentration of Zn, derived from ZnO support doped with Ga3+, can dramatically enhance their stability against metal sintering. As a result, the hydrogenation of dimethyl oxalate (DMO) to ethylene glycol, an important reaction well known for deactivation from copper nanoparticle sintering, can show greatly enhanced activity and stability with the CuZn alloy catalysts due to no noticeable sintering. HRTEM, nano-diffraction and EXAFS characterization reveal the presence of a small beta-brass CuZn alloy phase (body-centred cubic, bcc) which appears to greatly stabilise Cu atoms from aggregation in accelerated deactivation tests. DFT calculations also indicate that the small bcc CuZn phase is more stable against Cu adatom migration than the fcc CuZn phase with the ability to maintain a higher Cu dispersion on its surface.
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