BERC-E 2/22: Electrochemical CO2 Reduction

At this week’s BERC Engineers meeting, we discussed a technological solution for electrochemical CO2 reduction, prompted by the scientific publication of Kendra Kuhl, one of the founders of Opus 12. Electrochemical CO2 reduction has the potential to create “solar fuels,” where solar energy is used to convert CO2 into liquid fuels that can then be used as an energy carrier. This technology aims to use electricity from renewable sources in order to convert CO2 released by fossil fuels back to useful carbon products. The start-up, Opus 12, was in the inaugural cohort at the Cyclotron Road accelerator at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, and has recently been a runner-up in the Berkeley Cleantech University Cup, as announced at the 2016 BERC Energy Summit.

Currently Opus 12 is looking for a partner to begin the scale-up of PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) electrolyzers, which convert CO2 into CO, and can also be used for fuel production using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The device architecture proposed by Opus 12 does not require CO2 to be dissolved in water, resulting in much higher rates of reaction of the conversion. This stands in contrast with the paper from 2012 discussed at our meeting, where the focus was more on the complexity of aqueous CO2 reduction catalyzed by copper rather than efficiency of the process. The results showed that copper can yield up to 16 different carbon products, which seems promising, but leads to poor selectivity and uncontrollable reaction conditions. Hence, choosing a different catalyst, such as gold or silver is a preferred path for industrial applications as it allows for >90% conversion to only one product (CO).



During the meeting, we noted that the Fischer-Tropsch process often produces a considerable fraction of alkyl chains that are too long to be used efficiently as liquid fuels. Furthermore, the real benefit of CO2 reduction comes into play when larger molecules such as ethanol and ethylene are formed, since their production is more profitable. However, selectivity for these products currently remains too low for industrial standards, and Opus 12 seems to be pursuing the right business strategy of breaking its technological advancement into smaller, achievable steps.