Electrocatalysis for Chemical and Fuel Production: Investigating Climate Change Mitigation Potential and Economic Feasibility

Julie Zimmerman, Paul Anastas and 6 other contributors

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    The manufacture of goods from oil, coal, or gas to everyday consumer products comprises in more or less all cases at least one catalytic step. Compared to conventional hydrothermal catalysis, electrocatalysis possesses the advantage of mild operational conditions and high selectivity, yet the potential energy savings and climate change mitigation have rarely been assessed. This study conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) for the electrocatalytic oxidation of crude glycerol to produce lactic acid, one of the most common platform chemicals. The LCA results demonstrated a 31% reduction in global warming potential (GWP) compared to the benchmark (bio- and chemocatalytic) processes. Additionally, electrocatalysis yielded a synergetic potential to mitigate climate change depending on the scenario. For example, electrocatalysis combined with a low-carbon-intensity grid can reduce GWP by 57% if the process yields lactic acid and lignocellulosic biofuel as compared to a conventional fossil-based system with functionally equivalent products. This illustrates the potential of electrocatalysis as an important contributor to climate change mitigation across multiple industries. A technoeconomic analysis (TEA) for electrocatalytic lactic acid production indicated considerable challenges in economic feasibility due to the significant upfront capital cost. This challenge could be largely addressed by enabling dual redox processing to produce separate streams of renewable chemicals and biofuels simultaneously.