Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Chemical Engineering

First Advisor

Xiao-Dong Zhou


The electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid fuels especially coupling with the intermittent renewable electricity offers a promising means of storing electricity in chemical form, which reduces the dependence on fossil fuels and mitigates the negative impact of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on the planet. Although converting CO2 to fuels is not in itself a new concept, the field has not substantially advanced in the last 30 years primarily because of the challenge of discovery of structural electrocatalysts and the development of membrane architectures for efficient collection of reactants and separation of products. An efficient catalyst for the electrochemical conversion of CO2 to fuels must be capable of mediating a proton-coupled electron transfer reaction at low overpotentials, reducing CO2 in the presence of water, selectively converting CO2 to desirable chemicals, and sustaining long-term operations (Chapter 1). My Ph.D. research was an investigation of the electroreduction of CO2 on tin-based electrodes and development of an electrochemical cell to convert CO2 to liquid fuels.

The initial study focused on understanding the CO2 reduction reaction chemistry in the electrical double layer with an emphasis on the effects of electrostatic adsorption of cations, specific adsorption of anion and electrolyte concentration on the potential and proton concentration at outer Helmholtz plane at which reduction reaction occurs. The variation of potential and proton concentration at outer Helmholtz plane accounts for the difference in activity and selectivity towards CO2 reduction when using different electrolytes (Chapter 2).

Central to the highly efficient CO2 reduction is an optimum microstructure of catalyst layer in the Sn gas diffusion electrode (GDE) consisting of 100 nm Sn nanoparticles to facilitate gas diffusion and charge transfer. This microstructure in terms of the proton conductor fraction and catalyst layer thickness was optimized to maximize the triple phase boundary length for simultaneous high current density and selectivity towards formate formation (Chapter 3). The Sn GDEs was incorporated into a home-designed scalable full electrochemical cell which features a buffer layer of circulating liquid electrolyte mediating the proton concentration at cathode electrode surface. The Sn GDEs exhibited excellent short-term performance for CO2 reduction with high selectivity towards formate formation at low overpotentials in the full electrochemical cell. Additionally, coupling water oxidation and CO2 reduction was demonstrated in this full electrochemical cell to mimic biosynthesis (Chapter 4).

The rapid degradation of selectivity towards formate formation on Sn GDEs in the full electrochemical cell, however, was observed during long-term operation. The degradation mechanism was unraveled due to the decrease of electrode potential resulted from substantial increase of internal ohmic resistance of the full electrochemical cell. The unexpected rise of internal ohmic resistance was attributed to the pulverization of 100 nm Sn nanoparticles due to the hydrogen diffusion induced stress. Based on the understanding of the origin of Sn nanoparticles pulverization, SnO2 nanoparticles of 3~3.5 nm close to the critical size were utilized and reduced in situ to form Sn catalyst for electrochemical reduction of CO2. The pulverization was suppressed and subsequently a stable performance of electrodes was obtained (Chapter 5).

Due to the affinity to oxygen, Sn nanoparticle surface is covered by a native thin oxide layer. The performance of Sn GDEs towards CO2 reduction strongly depends on the initial thickness of the surface oxide layer. The selectivity towards formate production dropped while the hydrogen yield increased as the initial thickness of the oxide layer increased (Chapter 6). These results suggest the underlying of surface structure on the selectivity of Sn electrode for CO2 reduction and provide insight into the development of more efficient catalysts.