The active phase of Pd during methane oxidation is a long-standing puzzle, which, if solved, could provide routes for design of improved catalysts. Here, density functional theory and in situ surface X-ray diffraction are used to identify and characterize atomic sites yielding high methane conversion. Calculations are performed for methane dissociation over a range of Pd and PdOx surfaces and reveal facile dissociation on either under-coordinated Pd sites in PdO(101) or metallic surfaces. The experiments show unambiguously that high methane conversion requires sufficiently thick PdO(101) films or metallic Pd, in full agreement with the calculations. The established link between high activity and atomic structure enables rational design of improved catalysts.
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