Project News

The Race to Develop Efficient Catalysts for CO2 Electrolysis

As nations around the world strive to combat climate change, new technologies are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One promising area is CO2 electrolysis—using renewable electricity to convert CO2 into value-added carbon-based fuels and chemicals. However, realizing this technology at scale requires overcoming key challenges in the development of electrocatalysts.

The Race to Develop Efficient Catalysts for CO2 Electrolysis

Electrocatalysts accelerate the reactions at electrodes to drive the CO2 conversion process. But efficiently catalyzing CO2 reduction reactions has proven difficult. The process requires high energy input to activate the stable CO2 molecule, often resulting in high overpotentials. This leads to low efficiency and selectivity.

To make CO2 electrolysis commercially viable, scientists must discover new catalysts that can:

  • Drive CO2 reduction at high rates but with low overpotentials, maintaining a high electrical efficiency.
  • Selectively produce target fuels like methanol or ethanol rather than a mixture of products.
  • Use abundant, non-critical materials for scalability and avoiding supply risks.
  • Demonstrate long-term stability for sustained industrial operation.
  • Allow high catalytic activity at the low temperatures optimal for the polymer membranes and cells.
  • Be produced economically at scale and integrated into electrode and cell fabrication.

Both the cathode and anode reactions require next-gen electrocatalyst innovation. On the cathode side, copper-based materials have shown promise for converting CO2 to hydrocarbons and alcohols. But further tuning through nanostructuring and doping is needed to enhance selectivity and reduce overpotentials.

Meanwhile, non-precious metal alternatives are needed for the oxygen evolution reaction at the anode. Metal oxides like nickel-iron oxides have potential but require optimization for activity and durability.

Researchers are also investigating innovative techniques like computational modeling and machine learning to accelerate electrocatalyst discovery and optimization.

By surmounting these interlinked catalyst challenges, researchers can unlock the full potential of CO2 electrolysis in the urgent fight against climate change. The race is on to develop the robust, selective, and scalable catalysts needed to turn CO2 into fuels sustainably.

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CNR-ITAE hosted VITO in the framework of the ECO2Fuel project

CNR-ITAE hosted VITO in the framework of the ECO2Fuel project; researchers Jing Shen, Zhiyuan Chen, and technical manager Joost Helsen visited CNR in November for three days to discuss and harmonise the experiments and protocols to evaluate the CO2 electrolysis test rigs at both institutions.

During the visit, design and manufacturing of the demonstrator were also discussed, which have already started in parallel with the materials and components optimisation at VITO.

The consortium partner will be continuing these face-to-face exchanges to accelerate the upscaling and optimisation of the ECO2Fuel technology.

Next: Researchers from UPV visit DLR for 15 days for a hands-on workshop on the CO2 electrolyser test rig and online CO2 reduction product monitoring.

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Meet us at the European Hydrogen Week in Brussels

Although the ECO2Fuel technology is independent of hydrogen, it is still an electrolysis technology carried out in an electrochemical membrane reactor like water electrolysis, a key technology to produce green hydrogen.

Dr. Schwan Hosseiny, Project Coordinator

Thus, being up to date in the water electrolysis field and knowing about the various technologies and approaches for improvement will help to accelerate the developments in the ECO2Fuel too.

Here the European Hydrogen Week 2022, the biggest annual event dedicated to hydrogen, offers a great platform to get a broad overview of the European hydrogen landscape, including the status of electrolysis technologies.

Therefore, ECO2Fuel project coordinator Dr. Schwan Hosseiny will attend the European Hydrogen Week to listen to the many interesting talks, meet and network with the players in the water electrolysis field and will be happy to discuss the latest developments in electrolysis, whether water or CO2 with you.

Project News

Handling the challenges of advanced CO2 electrolysis: Ion conduction, alcohol exclusion and salt exclusion

The membrane is at the heart of any electrochemical membrane reactor, with the general tasks of separating the anode and cathode electrodes and chambers from each other while allowing ion conduction to complete the electrochemical circuit.

However, for the ECO2Fuel technology, the membrane must fulfil three additional tasks to allow the efficient conversion of CO2 into green fuels and valuable chemicals:

High ion conduction

The conductivity of ions through the membrane dictates the ohmic resistance and therefore the energy efficiency of the ECO2Fuel technology. High ion conduction means low ohmic resistance, leading to better energy efficiency.

Alcohol exclusion

The ECO2Fuel technology produces among other carbonaceous chemicals also alcohols by combining CO2, water and electrons from renewable sources. However, ion-conducting membranes normally swell in contact with alcohols, allowing them to cross from the cathode to the anode chamber.

Alcohols that cross the membrane to the anode chamber will face the anode electrode, where they will be oxidised back to CO, reducing the efficiency of the technology. Therefore, membranes in the ECO2Fuel technology need to possess ultra-low alcohol crossover.

Salt exclusion

Finally, the ECO2Fuel process relies on a supporting alkaline electrolyte (salt) to maintain optimum conditions for the electrochemical reactions.

This electrolyte is introduced on the anode electrode, whereas the CO2-to-fuel conversion occurs in the cathode. Only the membrane prevents access of salt to the fuel output line, the third critical function of the ECO2Fuel membrane.

Achieving these three tasks together, Ion conduction, alcohol and salt exclusion, is especially challenging.

In ECO2Fuel, Hydrolite directs the membrane development work package and will develop membranes with unique separation properties, allowing high performance and robustness for the ECO2Fuel technology.

To implement molecular-scale and solution-phase sieving effects tailored to the specific species that need to be excluded to achieve the selective passage of the various reactants and products to where they are needed, Hydrolite is taking advantage of their advanced fabrication techniques.

Our academic partners in the consortium – CNR (Italy), DTU (Denmark), DLR (Germany) and UPV (Spain) provide critical feedback in the form of characterization and evaluation of these speciality components.

Hydrolite also works closely with industry partners including Electrolyzer Stack designer Vito (Belgium) to refine specifications – assuring that required separation and sealing quality are achieved, and Membrane-Electrode Assembly developer De Nora (Italy) to help achieve optimal integration between membranes and electrodes, and thus maximizing the overall performance of the Electrolyzer device.

CNR – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche

DTU – Danmarks Tekniske Universitet

DLR – Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt

UPV – Universitat Politècnica de València

Dr Miles Page