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Johnson Matthey Technol. Rev., 2018, 62, (3), 271
doi: 10.1595/205651318X696765

Dynamic Nuclear Polarisation Enhanced Solid-State Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Studies of Surface Modification of γ-Alumina

Enhanced solid-state NMR technique significantly reduces experiment time for surface studies

  • Marco Mais
  • School of Chemistry, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK
  • Subhradip Paul
  • Nottingham DNP MAS NMR Facility, Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, University of Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK
  • Nathan S. Barrow
  • Johnson Matthey, Blounts Court, Sonning Common, Reading, RG4 9NH, UK
  • Jeremy J. Titman*
  • School of Chemistry, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK
  • *Email:

Dynamic nuclear polarisation (DNP) gives large (>100-fold) signal enhancements in solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (solid-state NMR) spectra via the transfer of spin polarisation from unpaired electrons from radicals implanted in the sample. This means that the detailed information about local molecular environment available for bulk samples from solid-state NMR spectroscopy can now be obtained for dilute species, such as sites on the surfaces of catalysts and catalyst supports. In this paper we describe a DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR study of the widely used catalyst γ-alumina which is often modified at the surface by the incorporation of alkaline earth oxides in order to control the availability of catalytically active penta-coordinate surface Al sites. DNP-enhanced 27Al solid-state NMR allows surface sites in γ-alumina to be observed and their 27Al NMR parameters measured. In addition changes in the availability of different surface sites can be detected after incorporation of barium oxide.


Solid-state NMR is a powerful method for studying the molecular structure and dynamics of a broad range of advanced materials. NMR suffers from low sensitivity, because of the small nuclear spin polarisations involved even with high magnetic fields so that long acquisition times or large sample volumes are often required. The problem of sensitivity becomes overwhelming for dilute species, so that measurements of surface sites, molecules at interfaces or isotopes with low natural abundance are often impossible. Fortunately, weak NMR signals can be enhanced by DNP, which involves transfer of electron spin polarisation from radicals implanted in the sample to nearby nuclei (14). This process requires the saturation of the electronic Zeeman transitions at microwave frequencies and is most efficient at low temperatures (<100 K).

Until recently DNP has been limited to low magnetic fields because of the lack of high-frequency, high-power microwave sources. However, developments in the design of extended interaction klystrons (5, 6) and gyrotrons (7) have made DNP spectrometers operating at 1H NMR frequencies up to 900 MHz possible. Commercial DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR spectrometers have been available since 2010, leading to an increase in publications as shown in Figure 1 illustrating the emergence of DNP, particularly as a surface science technique. The substantial enhancements (routinely >100-fold) obtained with DNP make NMR studies of dilute species feasible for the first time, enabling a >10,000-fold time saving, making impossible NMR experiments viable and prompting many new NMR applications, for example, to surfaces (813).

Fig. 1.

DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR publications by year, based on a Scopus® search with the search term TITLE-ABS-KEY((“dynamic nuclear polarisation” or “DNP”) and “MAS”)

γ-Alumina is widely used as an industrial catalyst support, chosen because of its high surface area, good thermal stability, favourable pore-size distribution and useful acid/base properties (14). Catalytically active elements doped onto the support bind to several sites with varying coordination environments at the surface. Pre-treatment of the alumina with alkaline earth and rare earth oxides alters the availability of these different sites, allowing control over the catalytic activity (15). For example, BaO and lanthanum oxide are commonly added as stabilisers to the alumina supports used in three-way catalysts for vehicle emission control (16).

Solid-state 27Al NMR is a powerful technique to characterise the local environment in a wide range of materials, including clays, glasses, zeolites and other microporous systems (17). 27Al magic-angle spinning (MAS) NMR spectra of transition alumina usually show peaks at approximately 67 ppm and 9 ppm which are assigned to tetrahedrally (AlO4) and octahedrally (AlO6) coordinated aluminium, respectively. Surface-selective {1H}-27Al cross polarisation (CP) (15, 1821) has revealed a further signal at about 30 ppm which is assigned to fivefold coordinated aluminium sites (AlO5) in the first surface layer.

27Al MAS NMR of BaO-modified γ-alumina shows a decrease in the proportion of fivefold co-ordinated aluminium as the amount of doping increases (22), suggesting that doping with BaO blocks access to these reactive sites. However, recent computational studies (23) indicate that only a fraction of the surface aluminium may be observed using {1H}-27Al CPMAS NMR, since CP favours symmetric sites, although the authors did not account for surface reconstruction (24) or for increased motional flexibility at the alumina surface (22). Furthermore, the linewidths of {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectra (15) are not narrower than in direct excitation spectra, as would be the case if CP filtered out the response from asymmetric sites. Hence, the nature of the surface sites of γ-alumina, their modification by other oxides and even the utility of 27Al MAS NMR for studying them are still a matter for debate.

DNP results in surface selectivity because the polarisation source is a radical or bi-radical dissolved in a solvent which wets the surface of the sample. At low temperatures, the solvent usually forms a glassy matrix, and transfer mechanisms transport the polarisation to nuclei in the sample surface. In this case polarisation transfer from the biradical to surface 27Al nuclei is achieved by spin diffusion through the dipolar-coupled 1H network in the frozen organic solvent followed by {1H}-27Al CP. The selectivity means DNP is expected to be an effective method for the study of surface sites in γ-alumina. However, previous DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectra of γ-alumina (21, 25) did not show a significant AlO5 peak, possibly owing to hydration of the surface during the sample preparation.

In this paper we describe a new DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS study of γ-alumina and BaO-modified γ-alumina in which a significant AlO5 peak is observed for the first time with DNP. Sample preparation (see Supplementary Information (SI) in the online version of this article) was found to be critical for optimising the DNP enhancement. It should also be noted that the current study was carried out at higher magnetic field (14.1 T compared to 9.4 T) to provide improved resolution of 27Al environments and with different DNP polarising agents to previous work.

Results and Discussion

Figure 2 shows the conventional 27Al MAS spectrum of bulk γ-alumina recorded in just 24 s with a total of 24 scans. The signal to noise ratio is very high as expected for a bulk sample, but only two 27Al peaks are observed at approximately 70 ppm and 10 ppm, which can be assigned to the AlO4 and AlO6 sites in the γ-alumina structure, respectively. In order to illustrate the advantages of the method Figure 3 shows (black) the DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectra of γ-alumina wetness impregnated with a solution of the biradical TEKPol (26) in 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane (TCE) as described in the SI. This spectrum shows an extra 27Al peak at about 30 ppm which can be assigned to the surface AlO5 sites. The lack of significant line broadening with DNP demonstrates that wetting with the radical solution does not have a detrimental effect on the NMR spectrum.

Fig. 2.

27Al MAS spectrum of bulk γ-alumina. Two 27Al peaks are present which can be assigned to the AlO4 and AlO6 sites in the γ-alumina crystal structure

Following convention the DNP-enhanced spectrum (‘microwave on’) is compared to an identical one recorded with the gyrotron turned off (the ‘microwave off’ spectrum) (red), and an enhancement ɛ of 36 can be measured for DNP (see SI) for the AlO6 site which equates to a 1300-fold saving in time. The surface selectivity of DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS means the AlO5 site, which is not observed at all in the bulk, is now clearly visible in the spectrum.

The DNP-enhanced 27Al CPMAS spectrum in Figure 3 exhibits lines with a characteristic asymmetric lineshape which is evidence of disorder and a distribution of electric field gradients (27). This means that the high-field tail of the asymmetric AlO5 line overlaps with the AlO6 peak and two-dimensional experiments are required to improve the resolution and separate them (28). Since 27Al is a quadrupolar nucleus with I = 5/2, the approach of choice is the cross-polarisation multiple-quantum MAS (CP-MQMAS) experiment (29) which is described in more detail in the SI. The large signal enhancements obtained with DNP make surface-selective two-dimensional CP-MQMAS experiments feasible.

Fig. 3.

DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectrum of γ-alumina (black) and comparison with the corresponding microwave off spectrum (red), showing the 36-fold enhancement obtained in this case using DNP. Note the appearance of a third 27Al peak in the spectrum which can be assigned to the surface AlO5 sites. Experimental details are given in the SI

A DNP-enhanced CP-MQMAS spectrum of γ-alumina is shown in Figure 4(a), and the three surface 27Al peaks are clearly resolved. In MQMAS experiments the two-dimensional lineshapes observed depend on the isotropic chemical shift δiso and quadrupolar coupling CQ, as well as the distributions in these parameters arising from disorder. The quadrupolar coupling is determined by the electric field gradient (EFG) which in turn results from the distribution of charges around the observed nucleus.

Fig. 4.

DNP-enhanced two-dimensional sheared {1H}-27Al CP-MQMAS spectra of: (a) γ-alumina; and (b) BaO-modified γ-alumina. All three 27Al lines are fully resolved in the two-dimensional spectra. There were 100 t1 increments with 120 co-added scans for each. Heteronuclear decoupling was applied using the swept-frequency two-pulse phase modulation (SWf-TPPM) sequence with a 1H radiofrequency (rf) amplitude of 90 kHz during t1 and t2. The z-filter delay was 20 μs. The non-selective 27Al coherence transfer pulse after t1 was 1.5 μs in duration with a rf amplitude of 88.6 kHz, and the selective 27Al pulse before t2 was 11.5 μs in duration with a rf amplitude of 22.0 kHz. Other parameters were as for Fig. 3, except for: (b) the relaxation delay was 5.1 s. Experimental details are given in the SI

Czjzek et al. (30, 31) derived the joint distribution p of the principal EFG tensor component Vzz = hCQ/eQ and the asymmetry parameter η in the case of a statistical distribution of charges around the observed nucleus, shown in Equation (i):




where the parameter σ is directly proportional to the average value of the quadrupolar product PQ = CQ(1+η/3)1/2 for the joint distribution.

The DNP-enhanced CP-MQMAS spectrum in Figure 4(a) suggests that for the AlO4 site the distribution in isotropic chemical shift induced by the disorder dominates, since the observed broadening is parallel to the ‘chemical shift axis’ of the two-dimensional spectrum. On the other hand for the AlO6 site the distribution in the electric field gradient dominates since the observed broadening is along the ‘quadrupolar induced shift axis’ of the two-dimensional spectrum. The interaction between these distributions complicates the interpretation of MQMAS spectra in terms of disorder, so for fitting using the DMFit package (32) a Gaussian distribution of isotropic chemical shift is assumed which is uncorrelated with the Czjzek distribution of CQ. The fit parameters were an amplitude factor, the isotropic position, the width of the Gaussian chemical shift distribution and the average value of PQ from the Czjzek distribution.

Initially, the full DNP-enhanced two-dimensional CP-MQMAS spectrum was fitted, and the chemical shift distribution fixed before fitting the DNP-enhanced MAS spectrum to allow the intensity for each site to be obtained by integrating over the resulting lineshape. It should be noted that given the complicated polarisation transfer mechanisms associated with DNP, {1H}-27Al CP and the MQMAS experiment, this spectrum should be thought of as at best semi-quantitative.

Figure 5(a) shows (top) the two-dimensional fit (red) to the spectrum of Figure 4(a) (black), as well as (bottom) the one-dimensional fit (red) to the spectrum of Figure 3 (black). The corresponding fit parameters are given in Table I and these confirm the substantially larger isotropic chemical shift distribution for the AlO4 site compared to AlO6. Wischert et al. (23) have demonstrated that {1H}-27Al CPMAS is sensitive to strongly hydrated surface sites and that catalytically important Al centres with high quadrupolar couplings are not always observed, and this might also be the case here.

Fig. 5.

Fits to data using the DMFit package (32): (a) γ-alumina: (top) two-dimensional fit (red) to the DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CP-MQMAS spectrum shown in Fig. 4(a) (black), (bottom) one-dimensional fit (red) to the DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectrum shown in Fig. 3(a) (black); (b) BaO-modified γ-alumina: (top) two-dimensional fit (red) to the DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CP-MQMAS spectrum of BaO-modified γ-alumina shown in Fig. 4(b) (black), (bottom) one-dimensional fit (red) to the DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectrum of BaO-modified γ-alumina shown in Fig. 6 (black). Further details of the fitting are described in the text and the resulting parameters are shown in Table I

Table I

Czjzek Model Fitting Parameters for Different 27Al Sitesa

Relative Intensityb δiso, ppmc Δ, ppm <P Q>, MHz
γ-Al2O3 site AlO4 0.10 ± 0.02 77.5 ± 0.2 16.0 ± 0.3 3.5 ± 0.1
AlO5 0.13 ± 0.02 37.2 ± 0.2 6.3 ± 0.3 4.5 ± 0.1
AlO6 0.78 ± 0.02 14.0 ± 0.2 7.2 ± 0.3 4.3 ± 0.1
BaO/γ-Al2O3 site AlO4 0.16 ± 0.02 77.4 ± 0.2 11.3 ± 0.3 4.5 ± 0.1
AlO5 0.08 ± 0.02 34.0 ± 0.2 12.7 ± 0.3 3.1 ± 0.1
AlO6 0.76 ± 0.02 13.7 ± 0.2 7.4 ± 0.3 4.2 ± 0.1

a Errors obtained for each fitting parameters from the DMFit package. Errors quoted are largest obtained for all sites.

b Integral over the fitted lineshape. Note that because of the complicated polarisation transfer processes associated with DNP, {1H}-27Al CP and MQMAS only the relative intensities within a particular spectrum can be compared.

c Isotropic position.

Figure 6 shows a comparison between DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectra of (red) BaO-modified and (black) unmodified γ-alumina (from Figure 3) normalised so that the overall spectral intensity is preserved. The AlO5 peak decreases in intensity while the AlO4 peak increases after pretreatment with BaO, as found previously by 27Al MAS NMR for BaO (33) and by {1H}-27Al CPMAS for SrO (15). This suggests that the reactive surface AlO5 environment provides a preferential nucleation site for Ba (22). Figure 4(b) shows a DNP-enhanced CP-MQMAS spectrum of BaO-modified γ-alumina which is similar in appearance to that for unmodified γ-alumina in Figure 4(a). Figure 5(b) shows (top) the two-dimensional fit (red) to the spectrum of Figure 4(b) (black), as well as (bottom) the one-dimensional fit (red) to the BaO-modified γ-alumina spectrum of Figure 6 (black).

Fig. 6.

DNP-enhanced {1H}-27Al CPMAS spectrum of BaO-modified γ-alumina and comparison with the corresponding spectrum of unmodified γ-alumina from Fig. 3. The data are normalised to the total spectral integral

The results of fitting to the Czjzek model are given in Table I, and the similarity between the parameters obtained for the two samples suggests that modification with BaO does not significantly modify the local environment of the Al surface sites. However, the width of the distribution of chemical shifts for the AlO5 site increases with modification by BaO, while <PQ> decreases. This could indicate that BaO adds preferentially to the most distorted AlO5 sites. In addition to changes in the chemical shift and quadrupolar parameters, the relative intensities confirm that the proportion of AlO5 sites has decreased after surface modification by BaO, while the proportion of AlO4 sites has increased.


DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR is an emerging technology for surface science, capable of enhancing surface NMR signals to achieve greater than 1000-fold savings in experiment time. This enabling technology is applicable to many catalyst materials, where structural information about the surface can be critical to the understanding of chemical processes.

In the example presented here, bulk NMR measurements of undoped and doped alumina showed no change. However, {1H}-27Al CPMAS NMR of alumina is surface-specific and showed that adding BaO reduced the intensity of the AlO5 sites. To reveal more insight about the surface environments, two-dimensional CP-MQMAS experiments were required, but these would require prohibitively long experiment times with conventional NMR. Following a novel sample preparation involving grinding in a glovebox prior to radical impregnation, the DNP enhancement obtained was sufficient for acquisition of the required CP-MQMAS spectra in less than one day with sufficient signal-to-noise for fitting to structural models.

A Czjzek model revealed the chemical shift and quadrupolar coupling distributions of the three surface environments. These showed little difference between pristine γ-alumina and its BaO-modified counterpart with only a reduction in the intensity of the AlO5 signal and a concomitant increase for AlO4. This suggests that upon BaO modification the remaining alumina sites are unperturbed by the presence of BaO. These results can be used to refine DFT models of BaO-modified γ-alumina surfaces, to provide insight for further chemical reactions such as doping of metals, or to aid understanding of metal-support interactions and subsequent catalytic testing.


The 600 MHz/395 GHz DNP spectrometer used in this work was purchased with funding from EPSRC’s Strategic Equipment Panel (EP/L022524) and the University of Nottingham, UK. Marco Mais thanks EPSRC, UK and Johnson Matthey, UK for a PhD Studentship funded under the industrial CASE scheme.


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Supplementary Information

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The Authors

Marco Mais obtained his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Cagliari, Italy and his Master’s degree in Physical Chemistry at the University of Pisa, Italy. He is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Nottingham, UK funded by an EPSRC industrial CASE studentship “Dynamic Nuclear Polarisation MAS NMR Studies of Catalysts” in collaboration with Johnson Matthey, UK. His research is primarily focused on surface analysis of a wide range of catalysts and catalytic supports with solid-state NMR and DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR. He also worked in NMR relaxometry and the application of alternative numerical approaches for ill-posed problems that arise from dynamic NMR studies. He is a member of the Italian National Group of Magnetic Resonance.

Subhradip Paul obtained his MSc and PhD in solid-state NMR at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, India. Afterwards he carried out postdoctoral research in the field of solid-state NMR at Ohio State University, USA, and in the field of DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR at Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), Grenoble, France before moving to the University of Nottingham, UK where his current position is Facility Manager of the Nottingham DNP MAS NMR Facility. During his research career he has primarily worked on methodology development in solid-state NMR and its further application in important systems for structure elucidation. He has also worked on theoretical aspects of DNP-enhanced solid-state NMR and the development of pulse sequences applicable in systems at their natural isotopic abundance.

Nathan Barrow is currently a Principal Scientist in the Advanced Characterisation department at Johnson Matthey, Sonning Common, UK. He graduated with an MPhys in 2006 from the University of Warwick, UK, where he remained to gain a PhD in solid-state NMR. In 2010 he was a Knowledge Transfer Partnership associate between the University of Warwick and Johnson Matthey helping to install and run a solid-state NMR service. His current research focuses on applying advanced characterisation methods to materials such as zeolites, alumina, glasses and batteries.

Jeremy Titman carried out NMR research at the University of Cambridge, UK and the Max-Planck-Institut für Polymerforschung, Germany, before moving to the University of Nottingham, UK where he is currently Associate Professor and Reader in Magnetic Resonance. During over 25 years of research activity, he has developed a large number of new methods in solid-state NMR and has applied them to a broad range of problems in chemistry and materials science. He is currently Deputy Director of the UK 850 MHz Solid-State NMR Facility.

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