The project supports research toward development of an electrochemical modular system to directly convert waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into pure liquid fuels. The resulting technology will provide a sustainable, negative-carbon, low-waste, and point-source manufacturing path preferable to traditional large-scale chemical process plants. This alternative and distributed route will further extend the wide range applications of liquid fuels as energy carriers and chemical feedstocks, and, more importantly, shift a significant portion of energy consumption from fossil fuels to renewable electricity while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Beyond the direct research thrusts, the project includes broadening participation activities with the goal of increasing access to science of diverse groups, establishing a community of researchers focused on electrochemical solutions to carbon dioxide remediation, and building a competent and engaged workforce of engineers and scientists.
Converting waste CO2 into valuable chemicals and fuels, with the input of renewable electricity, can distribute the way we produce chemical feedstocks, while making significant contributions to establish an anthropogenic carbon loop. Nevertheless, significant challenges still need to be overcome before this renewable route can be applied practically on a commercial scale. Typically, the electrochemical CO2 reduction reaction (CO2RR) - to generate C1 to C3 liquid fuels - involves use of solutes mixed with liquid electrolyte, which subsequently necessitates energy- and cost-intensive separation processes to recover pure liquid fuel solutions. In addition, there is still a lack of highly selective and efficient CO2RR catalysts for target products. To address these challenges, the project integrates interdisciplinary expertise including catalysts and novel electrolyzer design, polymer engineering, density functional theory simulations, and CO2 capture to build an electrochemical modular system as a platform for a continuous conversion process of simulated flue gas to pure liquid fuels. The project addresses both materials level design and device level engineering, with topics ranging from molecular scale simulation to mesoscopic mass diffusion to macroscopic system integration. Experiments and simulations are closely integrated in each component of the project, forming a systematic feedback loop to accelerate design and understanding of CO2 capture and conversion systems tailored for small-scale distributed chemical manufacturing. Beyond the immediate target of CO2 valorization, the project will establish a knowledge base and system platform for point-source manufacturing of liquid products from a range of low-value gaseous feed sources.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.