Electrochemical CO2 Reduction Catalysis and Device Integration

Artificial photosynthesis provides the opportunity to store renewable sources of energy (solar, wind, hydro) in the form of chemical bonds by electrochemically converting carbon dioxide into valuable fuels and chemicals. Advancing these technologies to the point they are techno-economically viable will provide means to close the carbon cycle by preparing carbon-neutral or even (ideally) carbon-negative fuels and chemicals. The Higgins group focuses on the development of nanostructured CO2 reduction catalysts with carefully tuned compositions and structures to gain a fundamental understanding of this important electrochemical reaction. Furthermore, catalyst integration into working artificial photosynthesis prototype devices to achieve high conversion rates, energy efficiency and product efficiency is an ongoing effort.

Fuel Cell Catalysis (Oxygen Reduction Reaction)

Low temperature fuel cells hold promise for enabling a sustainable transport sector that operates off of zero-emissions hydrogen produced by renewable means (i.e., electrolysis). Current challenges hindering widespread deployment of fuel cells are cost and stability challenges arising from the Pt-based oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) catalysts used at the cathode. It is essential to reduce Pt contents by achieving catalyst activity improvements while simultaneously improving the long-term operational stability. The Higgins group focuses on the development of low-Pt or Pt-group metal free (PGM-free) catalysts and their integration into operational fuel cells.

Electrochemical Water Splitting Catalysts

Electrochemical water splitting using renewable electricity (solar, wind, hydro) provides sustainable means for producing hydrogen. Hydrogen has many industrial uses, including fertilizer (ammonia) production, petrochemical processes and as a carbon-free fuel. Particularly, hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to transform the transportation sector. Operating on hydrogen produced renewably, fuel cell powered automobiles have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 90% in comparison to conventional internal combustion vehicles. The Higgins group focuses on the development of inexpensive nanostructured catalysts with high activity and stability for the oxidative oxygen evolution reaction (OER) or reductive hydrogen evolution reaction (HER).

Operando / in situ characterization of electrocatalyst and electrode materials

Understanding the role that the physical and chemical properties of nanomaterial catalysts and electrode structures have on performance is crucial for the discovery/design of new materials. Ex situ characterization of materials is not always reflective of the material properties during operation. Therefore, our group uses a variety of in situ / operando microscopic and spectroscopic approaches to gain an accurate understanding of the important factors that govern catalytic activity, selectivity and stability.

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Keywords: Electrochemistry, electrocatalysis, CO2 conversion, fuel cells, electrolysis, nanomaterials, sustainable energy, energy conversion and storage, operando characterization

© 2019 Drew Higgins, Department of Chemical Engineering, McMaster University