CO2 electrolysis to multicarbon products in strong acid

13 September 2021

Carbon dioxide electroreduction (CO2R) is being actively studied as a promising route to convert carbon emissions to valuable chemicals and fuels. However, the fraction of input CO2 that is productively reduced has typically been very low, <2% for multicarbon products; the balance reacts with hydroxide to form carbonate in both alkaline and neutral reactors. Acidic electrolytes would overcome this limitation, but hydrogen evolution has hitherto dominated under those conditions. We report that concentrating potassium cations in the vicinity of electrochemically active sites accelerates CO2 activation to enable efficient CO2R in acid. We achieve CO2R on copper at pH <1 with a single-pass CO2 utilization of 77%, including a conversion efficiency of 50% toward multicarbon products (ethylene, ethanol, and 1-propanol) at a current density of 1.2 amperes per square centimeter and a full-cell voltage of 4.2 volts.