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Hydronium-Induced Switching between CO2 Electroreduction Pathways

Seifitokaldani, Ali, Gabardo, Christine M., Burdyny, Thomas, Dinh, Cao-Thang, Edwards, Jonathan P., Kibria, Md Golam, Bushuyev, Oleksandr S., Kelley, Shana O., Sinton, David, Sargent, Edward H.
Journal of the American Chemical Society 2018 v.140 no.11 pp. 3833-3837
activation energy, carbon, carbon dioxide, catalysts, density functional theory, electrolytes, formates, hydrogenation, oxygen, potassium hydroxide, silver
Over a broad range of operating conditions, many CO₂ electroreduction catalysts can maintain selectivity toward certain reduction products, leading to materials and surfaces being categorized according to their products; here we ask, is product selectivity truly a property of the catalyst? Silver is among the best electrocatalysts for CO in aqueous electrolytes, where it reaches near-unity selectivity. We consider the hydrogenations of the oxygen and carbon atoms via the two proton-coupled-electron-transfer processes as chief determinants of product selectivity; and find using density functional theory (DFT) that the hydronium (H₃O⁺) intermediate plays a key role in the first oxygen hydrogenation step and lowers the activation energy barrier for CO formation. When this hydronium influence is removed, the activation energy barrier for oxygen hydrogenation increases significantly, and the barrier for carbon hydrogenation is reduced. These effects make the formate reaction pathway more favorable than CO. Experimentally, we then carry out CO₂ reduction in highly concentrated potassium hydroxide (KOH), limiting the hydronium concentration in the aqueous electrolyte. The product selectivity of a silver catalyst switches from entirely CO under neutral conditions to over 50% formate in the alkaline environment. The simulated and experimentally observed selectivity shift provides new insights into the role of hydronium on CO₂ electroreduction processes and the ability for electrolyte manipulation to directly influence transition state (TS) kinetics, altering favored CO₂ reaction pathways. We argue that selectivity should be considered less of an intrinsic catalyst property, and rather a combined product of the catalyst and reaction environment.