Improving the efficiency of CO2 electrolysis by using a bipolar membrane with a weak-acid cation exchange layer

Zhifei Yan, Jeremy L. Hitt, Zichen Zeng, Michael A. Hickner, Thomas E. Mallouk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


The efficient conversion of electricity to chemicals is needed to mitigate the intermittency of renewable energy sources. Driving these electrochemical conversions at useful rates requires not only fast electrode kinetics, but also rapid mass and ion transport. However, little is known about the effect of local environments on ionic flows in solid polymer electrolytes. Here, we show that it is possible to measure and manipulate the local pH in membrane electrolysers with a resolution of tens of nanometres. In bipolar-membrane-based gas-fed CO2 electrolysers, the acidic environment of the cation exchange layer results in low CO2 reduction efficiency. By using ratiometric indicators and layer-by-layer polyelectrolyte assembly, the local pH was measured and controlled within an ~50-nm-thick weak-acid layer. The weak-acid layer suppressed the competing hydrogen evolution reaction without affecting CO2 reduction. This method of probing and controlling the local membrane environment may be useful in devices such as electrolysers, fuel cells and flow batteries, as well as in operando studies of ion distributions within polymer electrolytes. [Figure not available: see fulltext.].

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-40
Number of pages8
JournalNature Chemistry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Chemical Engineering(all)


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