Electrocatalytic Reduction of CO2 to CO
More recently, another electrocatalytic process has gained significant attention in the research community: the electroreduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) to small molecules such as methanol, formic acid, carbon monoxide (CO), or short hydrocarbons (typically C1-C3). The drivers for these investigations are multiple, including the desire to identify ways to slow down the increase in (or even reduce) the atmospheric CO2 levels, with various undesired climate change effects already being attributed to the current CO2 level of >400 ppm. The amounts of CO2 being produced are so large that multiple approaches need to be implemented, including switching from fossil fuel-burning power plants to renewable energy sources, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, increasing the fuel efficiency of vehicles, and underground carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to curb the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.[1-3] Electrochemical reduction of produced and captured CO2 into useful chemicals including carbon monoxide (CO), formic acid, methane, and ethylene[5, 6] is another approach to address this grand challenge. Coupled to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, this process can produce carbon-neutral fuels or commodity chemicals by using CO2 as the starting material. Furthermore, electrochemical reduction of CO2may provide a storage medium for the otherwise wasted excess renewable energy from intermittent sources.
Only recently, less than the last decade, have studies involving the conversion of CO2 into useful chemicals really picked up in intensity. Prior, Hori has reported seminal work on screening different metal catalysts and the various products that can be formed using those metals. In these early studies conversion (<20 mA/cm2) and the selectivity for the desired product is typically low. For electrochemical conversion of CO2 to become economically feasible, more active and stable catalysts in as well as better electrodes are necessary such that the CO2 electrolyzer can be operated at sufficient conversion (current density >250 mA/cm2), reasonable energetic efficiency (>60%), and sufficient selectivity for the desired product (Faradaic efficiency >90%).
This paper will focus on our recent efforts to understand and improve catalysts and electrodes for conversion of CO2 into CO (Figure 1 top). The electrochemical conversion of CO2 is really the inverse process of a fuel cell. As such, many lessons learned over the past 100 years with respect to fuel cell electrocatalysis can be applied to the challenge of electroreduction of CO2. Multiple catalyst systems were studied with various collaborators: (i) Ag nanoparticles (varying size); (ii) various Ag and Au-based supported catalysts (carbon black, TiO2, and carbon nanotubes); and (iii) metal free catalysts. These catalysts have been characterized in a3-electrode cell as well as in an electrolyzer. Routinely current densities of 90-100 mA/cm2 are obtained, with some systems producing more than 200 mA/cm2, at energy efficiencies of 45 to 60%. The electrodes in all these cases are prepared using a fully-automated airbrushing method, which allowed loadings to be reduced to 0.75 mg/cm2 for Ag and 0.17 mg/cm2for Au. Furthermore, the metal-free catalysts that exhibit even better performance than the state-of-the-art silver nanoparticles (Figure 1 bottom), which is encouraging as the catalyst cost could be reduced significantly.
We gratefully acknowledge our collaborators at Illinois (Masel, Gewirth) and Kyushu University (Nakashima, Fujigaya, Lyth) as well as financial support from UIUC, DOE, and I2CNER, a World Premier Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in the USA and at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan.
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