Validating first-principles molecular dynamics calculations of oxide/water interfaces with x-ray reflectivity data

KJ Harmon and K Letchworth-Weaver and AP Gaiduk and F Giberti and F Gygi and MKY Chan and P Fenter and G Galli, PHYSICAL REVIEW MATERIALS, 4, 113805 (2020).

DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevMaterials.4.113805

Metal oxide/water interfaces play a crucial role in many electrochemical and photocatalytic processes, such as photoelectrochemical water splitting, the creation of fuel from sunlight, and electrochemical CO2 reduction. First-principles electronic structure calculations can reveal unique insights into these processes, such as the role of the alignment of the oxide electronic energy levels with those of liquid water. An essential prerequisite for the success of such calculations is the ability to predict accurate structural models of these interfaces, which in turn requires careful experimental validation. Here we report a general, quantitative validation protocol for first-principles molecular dynamics simulations of oxide/aqueous interfaces. The approach makes direct comparisons of interfacial x-ray reflectivity (XR) signals from experimental measurements and those obtained from ab initio simulations with semilocal and van der Waals functionals. The protocol is demonstrated here for the case of the Al2O3(001)/water interface, one of the simplest oxide/water interfaces. We discuss the technical requirements needed for validation, including the choice of the density functional, the simulation cell size, and the optimal choice of the thermodynamic ensemble. Our results establish a general paradigm for the validation of structural models and interactions at solid/water interfaces derived from first-principles simulations. While there is qualitative agreement between the simulated structures and the experimental best-fit structure, direct comparisons of simulated and measured XR intensities show quantitative discrepancies that derive from both bulk regions (i.e., alumina and water) as well as the interfacial region, highlighting the need for accurate density functionals to properly describe interfacial interactions. Our results show that XR data are sensitive not only to the atomic structure (i.e., the atom locations) but also to the electron-density distributions in both the substrate and at the interface.

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