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Understanding and Optimizing the Local Catalyst Environment in CO₂ Reduction Electrodes


Welch, Alexandra Justine (2022) Understanding and Optimizing the Local Catalyst Environment in CO₂ Reduction Electrodes. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/4s78-cq55.


Understanding and managing the local microenvironments in carbon dioxide reduction catalysts is crucial for optimizing device performance. In particular a locally high pH can increase catalyst selectivity and activity, as well as indicate which part of the catalyst is most active. In this thesis we begin by studying how nanoporous catalysts can induce this locally high pH in an aqueous system. We observe an increase in both Faradaic efficiency and partial current density for carbon monoxide in the nanoporous system relative to a planar metal film. We then show that this same nanoporous architecture can be used for improved device performance in a gas diffusion electrode configuration. We also perform copper underpotential deposition and secondary ion mass spectroscopy to show that almost half of the catalyst is not in contact with the electrolyte in this configuration. Then we use confocal fluorescent microscopy to image the local pH in a gas diffusion electrode to determine which parts of the electrode are most active. Through a combination of experiment and simulations we find that the catalyst within thin cracks of the microporous layer is most active for carbon dioxide reduction. While the study of local pH and wetting is the main focus of this thesis, we also explore how light can be used to improve selectivity and activity. In particular we study gold nanoparticles on p-type gallium nitride and copper nanoparticles on p-type nickel oxide. Finally, this thesis also explores how carbon dioxide conversion can actually be deployed. We discuss opportunities for combining carbon dioxide capture and conversion, as well as evaluate different pathways for renewable methane generation.

This thesis gives in depth analysis of electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction catalysts as well as putting this research into the larger context of how such devices can be deployed. We hope that by combining systems level thinking and specific device studies better carbon dioxide conversion systems can be realized.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:carbon dioxide reduction, solar fuels, confocal microscopy, nanoporous
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Applied Physics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Atwater, Harry Albert
Thesis Committee:
  • Greer, Julia R. (chair)
  • Goddard, William A., III
  • See, Kimberly
  • Atwater, Harry Albert
Defense Date:1 October 2021
Non-Caltech Author Email:ajwelch1031 (AT)
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:11062021-151820825
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for ch. 2 adapted for ch. 4 adapted for ch. 5 adapted for ch. 6 adapted for ch. 7 adapted for ch. 8
Welch, Alexandra Justine0000-0003-2132-9617
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:14420
Deposited By: Alexandra Welch
Deposited On:21 Dec 2021 22:15
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:12

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