Theses Doctoral

Membraneless Electrolyzers for Solar Fuels Production

Davis, Jonathan Tesner

Solar energy has the potential to meet all of society’s energy demands, but challenges remain in storing it for times when the sun is not shining. Electrolysis is a promising means of energy storage which applies solar-derived electricity to drive the production of chemical fuels. These so-called solar fuels, such as hydrogen gas produced from water electrolysis, can be fed back to the grid for electricity generation or used directly as a fuel in the transportation sector. Solar fuels can be generated by coupling a photovoltaic (PV) cell to an electrolyzer, or by directly converting light to chemical energy using a photoelectrochemical cell (PEC). Presently, both PV-electrolyzers and PECs have prohibitively high capital costs which prevent them from generating hydrogen at competitive prices. This dissertation explores the design of membraneless electrolyzers and PECs in order to simplify their design and decrease their overall capital costs.
A membraneless water electrolyzer can operate with as few as three components: A cathode for the hydrogen evolution reaction, an anode for the oxygen evolution reaction, and a chassis for managing the flows of a liquid electrolyte and the product gas streams. Absent from this device is an ionically conducting membrane, a key component in a conventional polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolyzer that typically serves as a physical barrier for separating product gases generated at the anode and cathode. These membranes can allow for compact and efficient electrolyzer designs, but are prone to degradation and failure if exposed to impurities in the electrolyte. A membraneless electrolyzer has the opportunity to reduce capital costs and operate in non-pristine environments, but little is known about the performance limitations and design rules that govern operation of membraneless electrolyzers. These design rules require a thorough understanding of the thermodynamics, kinetics, and transport processes in electrochemical systems. In Chapter 2, these concepts are reviewed and a framework is provided to guide the continuum scale modeling of the performance of membraneless electrochemical cells. Afterwards, three different studies are presented which combine experiment and theory to demonstrate the mechanisms of product transport and efficiency loss.
Chapter 3 investigates the dynamics of hydrogen bubbles during operation of a membraneless electrolyzer, which can strongly affect the product purity of the collected hydrogen. High-speed video imaging was implemented to quantify the size and position of hydrogen gas bubbles as they detach from porous mesh electrodes. The total hydrogen detected was compared to the theoretical value predicted by Faraday’s law. This analysis confirmed that not all electrochemically generated hydrogen enters the gas phase at the cathode surface. In fact, significant quantities of hydrogen remain dissolved in solution, and can result in lower product collection efficiencies. Differences in bubble volume fraction evolved along the length of the cathode reflect differences in the local current densities, and were found to be in agreement with the primary current distribution. Overall, this study demonstrates the ability to use in-situ HSV to quantitatively evaluate key performance metrics of membraneless electrolyzers in a non-invasive manner. This technique can be of great value for future experiments, where statistical analysis of bubble sizes and positions can provide information on how to collect hydrogen at maximum purity.
Chapter 4 presents an electrode design where selective placement of the electrocatalyst is shown to enhance the purity of hydrogen collected. These “asymmetric electrodes” were prepared by coating only one planar face of a porous titanium mesh electrode with platinum electrocatalyst. For an opposing pair of electrodes, the platinum coated surface faces outwards such that the electrochemically generated bubbles nucleate and grow on the outside while ions conduct through the void spacing in the mesh and across the inter-electrode gap. A key metric used in evaluating the performance of membraneless electrolyzers is the hydrogen cross-over percentage, which is defined as the fraction of electrochemically generated hydrogen that is collected in the headspace over the oxygen-evolving anode. When compared to the performance of symmetric electrodes – electrodes coated on both faces with platinum – the asymmetric electrodes demonstrated significantly lower rates of cross-over. With optimization, asymmetric electrodes were able to achieve hydrogen cross-over values as low as 1%. These electrodes were then incorporated into a floating photovoltaic electrolysis device for a direct demonstration of solar driven electrolysis. The assembled “solar fuels rig” was allowed to float in a reservoir of 0.5 M sulfuric acid under a light source calibrated to simulate sunlight, and a solar to hydrogen efficiency of 5.3% was observed.
In Chapter 5, the design principles for membraneless electrolyzers were applied to a photoelectrochemical (PEC) cell. Whereas an electrolyzer is externally powered by electricity, a PEC cell can directly harvest light to drive an electrochemical reaction. The PEC reactor was based on a parallel plate design, where the current was demonstrated to be limited by the intensity of light and the concentration of the electrolyte. By increasing the average flow rate of the electrolyte, mass transport limitations could be alleviated. The limiting current density was compared to theoretical values based off of the solution to a convection-diffusion problem. This modeled solution was used to predict the limitations to PEC performance in scaled up designs, where solar concentration mirrors could increase the total current density. The mass transport limitations of a PEC flow cell are also highly relevant to the study of CO2 reduction, where the solubility limit of CO2 in aqueous electrolyte can also limit performance.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Chemical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Esposito, Daniel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 3, 2019