Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Techno-economic assessment of low-temperature carbon dioxide electrolysis

Abstract

Low-temperature CO2 electrolysis represents a potential enabling process in the production of renewable chemicals and fuels, notably carbon monoxide, formic acid, ethylene and ethanol. Because this technology has progressed rapidly in recent years, a systematic techno-economic assessment has become necessary to evaluate its feasibility as a CO2 utilization approach. Here this work provides a comprehensive techno-economic assessment of four major products and prioritizes the technological development with systematic guidelines to facilitate the market deployment of low-temperature CO2 electrolysis. First, we survey state-of-the-art electrolyser performance and parameterize figures of merit. The analysis shows that production costs of carbon monoxide and formic acid (C1 products) are approaching US$0.44 and 0.59 kg–1, respectively, competitive with conventional processes. In comparison, the production of ethylene and ethanol (C2 products) is not immediately feasible due to their substantially higher costs of US$2.50 and 2.06 kg–1, respectively. We then provide a detailed roadmap to making C2 product production economically viable: an improvement in energetic efficiency to ~50% and a reduction in electricity price to US$0.01 kWh–1. We also propose industrially relevant benchmarks: 5-year stability of electrolyser components and the single-pass conversion of 30 and 15% for C1 and C2 products, respectively. Finally we discuss the economic aspects of two potential strategies to address electrolyte neutralization utilizing either an anion exchange membrane or bipolar membrane.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Chemical production process via low-temperature CO2 electrolysis.
Fig. 2: Laboratory-bench-scale CO2 electrolysis performance.
Fig. 3: Production cost changes for various parameters.
Fig. 4: Roadmap to reducing base case production cost by successive changes to cost-relevant parameters.
Fig. 5: Electrolyser current density required to maintain constant production cost.

Data availability

The spreadsheet used for cost analyses is available in Supplementary Data 1 (ref. 33). It includes analyses for two different cell configurations—AEM and BPM—with different voltammetric models.

Code availability

The MATLAB codes for voltammetric profiles are given in Supplementary Data 2.

References

  1. 1.

    IPCC: Summary for Policymakers. In Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (IPCC, WMO, 2018); https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

  2. 2.

    Chu, S. & Majumdar, A. Opportunities and challenges for a sustainable energy future. Nature 488, 294–303 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Pales, A. F. et al. Exploring Clean Energy Pathways: The Role of CO2 Storage (IEA, 2019); https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-co2-storage/

  4. 4.

    Roh, K. et al. Early-stage evaluation of emerging CO2 utilization technologies at low technology readiness levels. Green Chem. 22, 3842–3859 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Kennedy, G. W. A. Parish Post-Combustion CO2 Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project Final Technical Report Report DOE-PNPH-03311 (US Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information, 2020); https://doi.org/10.2172/1608572

  6. 6.

    Friedmannn, J., Ochu, E. & Brown, J. D. Capturing Investment: Policy Design to Finance CCUS Projects in the US Power Sector (Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, 2020); https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/research/report/capturing-investment-policy-design-finance-ccus-projects-us-power-sector

  7. 7.

    Ekmann, J., Huston, J. & Indrakanti, P. Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage: Technology and Policy Status and Opportunities (National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, 2018); https://pubs.naruc.org/pub/09B7EAAA-0189-830A-04AA-A9430F3D1192

  8. 8.

    Edwards, R. W. & Celia, M. A. Infrastructure to enable deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage in the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, E8815–E8824 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Jhong, H.-R. M., Ma, S. & Kenis, P. J. A. Electrochemical conversion of CO2 to useful chemicals: current status, remaining challenges, and future opportunities. Curr. Opin. Chem. Eng. 2, 191–199 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Kortlever, R., Shen, J., Schouten, K. J. P., Calle-Vallejo, F. & Koper, M. T. M. Catalysts and reaction pathways for the electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 6, 4073–4082 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Lu, Q. & Jiao, F. Electrochemical CO2 reduction: electrocatalyst, reaction mechanism, and process engineering. Nano Energy 29, 439–456 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Martín, A. J., Larrazábal, G. O. & Pérez-Ramírez, J. Towards sustainable fuels and chemicals through the electrochemical reduction of CO2: lessons from water electrolysis. Green Chem. 17, 5114–5130 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Nitopi, S. et al. Progress and perspectives of electrochemical CO2 reduction on copper in aqueous electrolyte. Chem. Rev. 119, 7610–7672 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Ma, S. et al. One-step electrosynthesis of ethylene and ethanol from CO2 in an alkaline electrolyzer. J. Power Sources 301, 219–228 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Gabardo, C. M. et al. Continuous carbon dioxide electroreduction to concentrated multi-carbon products using a membrane electrode assembly. Joule 3, 2777–2791 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Wang, X. et al. Efficient electrically powered CO2-to-ethanol via suppression of deoxygenation. Nat. Energy 5, 478–486 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Alibaba product search: formic acid 85%, category: organic acid, min order: 10 metric tons (Alibaba, 2021); https://www.alibaba.com/trade/search?IndexArea=product_en&SearchText=formic_acid_85%25&c=CID80310&f0=y&moqf=MOQF&moqt=MOQT10%20Metric%20Tons

  18. 18.

    Ethylene Market Size Worth $186.5 Billion by 2026 (Polaris, 2020); https://www.polarismarketresearch.com/press-releases/ethylene-market

  19. 19.

    Formic Acid Market Anticipated to Reach Market Value of USD 878.7 Million at a CAGR of 4.94% during 2016 to 2027 (MarketResearchFuture, 2017); https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/09/08/1116865/0/en/Formic-Acid-Market-Anticipated-to-Reach-Market-Value-of-USD-878-7-Million-at-a-CAGR-of-4-94-during-2016-to-2027.html

  20. 20.

    Ethanol Market Size Worth Around USD 155.6 Billion by 2030 (PrecedenceResearch, 2021); http://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/01/18/2160198/0/en/Ethanol-Market-Size-Worth-Around-USD-155-6-Billion-by-2030.html#:~:text=The%20global%20ethanol%20market%20size,5.2%25%20from%202021%20to%202030

  21. 21.

    Global Carbon Monoxide Market 2020–2026, with Breakdown Data of Capacity, Sales, Revenue, Price, Cost and Gross Profit (ReportsNMarkets, 2020); https://www.reportsnmarkets.com/report/Global-Carbon-Monoxide-Market-2020-2026-With-Breakdown-Data-of-Capacity-Sales-Revenue-Price-Cost-and-Gross-Profit–60

  22. 22.

    Sims, M. US May Ethylene Contracts Settle Up After Six-Month Decline (ICIS, 2020); https://www.icis.com/explore/resources/news/2020/06/02/10514594/us-may-ethylene-contracts-settle-up-after-six-month-decline

  23. 23.

    Annual Energy Outlook 2021: Table 12: Petroleum and Other Liquids Prices (EIA, 2020); https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/data/browser/#/?id=12-AEO2021&cases=ref2021&sourcekey=0

  24. 24.

    Haegel, N. M. et al. Terawatt-scale photovoltaics: trajectories and challenges. Science 356, 141–143 (2017).

  25. 25.

    Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources (EIA, 2020); https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf

  26. 26.

    Wiser, R. & Bolinger, M. 2016 Wind Technologies Market Report (US Department of Energy, 2016); https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2017/10/f37/2016_Wind_Technologies_Market_Report_101317.pdf

  27. 27.

    Baldea, M., Edgar, T. F., Stanley, B. L. & Kiss, A. A. Modular manufacturing processes: status, challenges, and opportunities. AlChE J. 63, 4262–4272 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Verma, S., Kim, B., Jhong, H. R. M., Ma, S. & Kenis, P. J. A. A gross-margin model for defining technoeconomic benchmarks in the electroreduction of CO2. ChemSusChem 9, 1972–1979 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Rumayor, M., Dominguez-Ramos, A., Perez, P. & Irabien, A. A techno-economic evaluation approach to the electrochemical reduction of CO2 for formic acid manufacture. J. CO2 Util. 34, 490–499 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Na, J. et al. General technoeconomic analysis for electrochemical coproduction coupling carbon dioxide reduction with organic oxidation. Nat. Commun. 10, 5193 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Verma, S., Lu, S. & Kenis, P. J. A. Co-electrolysis of CO2 and glycerol as a pathway to carbon chemicals with improved technoeconomics due to low electricity consumption. Nat. Energy 4, 466–474 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Spurgeon, J. M. & Kumar, B. A comparative technoeconomic analysis of pathways for commercial electrochemical CO2 reduction to liquid products. Energy Environ. Sci. 11, 1536–1551 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Jouny, M., Luc, W. & Jiao, F. General techno-economic analysis of CO2 electrolysis systems. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 57, 2165–2177 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Jouny, M., Hutchings, G. S. & Jiao, F. Carbon monoxide electroreduction as an emerging platform for carbon utilization. Nat. Catal. 2, 1062–1070 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    De Luna, P. et al. What would it take for renewably powered electrosynthesis to displace petrochemical processes? Science 364, eaav3506 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Orella, M. J., Brown, S. M., Leonard, M. E., Román-Leshkov, Y. & Brushett, F. R. A general technoeconomic model for evaluating emerging electrolytic processes. Energy Technol. 8, 1900994 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Wang, N. et al. Hydration-effect-promoting Ni–Fe oxyhydroxide catalysts for neutral water oxidation. Adv. Mater. 32, 1906806 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Smith, A. M., Trotochaud, L., Burke, M. S. & Boettcher, S. W. Contributions to activity enhancement via Fe incorporation in Ni-(oxy)hydroxide/borate catalysts for near-neutral pH oxygen evolution. Chem. Commun. 51, 5261–5263 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Salvatore, D. A. et al. Designing anion exchange membranes for CO2 electrolysers. Nat. Energy 6, 339–348 (2021).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Houache, M. S. E. et al. Selective electrooxidation of glycerol to formic acid over carbon supported Ni1–xMx (M = Bi, Pd, and Au) nanocatalysts and coelectrolysis of CO2. ACS Appl. Energy Mater. 3, 8725–8738 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Landress, L. Outlook ‘19: US Glycerine Markets Mixed Amid Uncertainty (ICIS, 2019); https://www.icis.com/explore/resources/news/2019/01/07/10301259/outlook-19-us-glycerine-markets-mixed-amid-uncertainty/

  42. 42.

    The SunShot 2030 Goals: 3¢ Per Kilowatt Hour for PV and 5¢ Per Kilowatt Hour for Dispatchable CSP (US Department of Energy, 2017); https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2020/09/f79/SunShot%202030%20White%20Paper.pdf

  43. 43.

    Edwards, J. P. et al. Efficient electrocatalytic conversion of carbon dioxide in a low-resistance pressurized alkaline electrolyzer. Appl. Energy 261, 114305 (2020).

  44. 44.

    García de Arquer, F. P. et al. CO2 electrolysis to multicarbon products at activities greater than 1 A cm−2. Science 367, 661–666 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Rabinowitz, J. A. & Kanan, M. W. The future of low-temperature carbon dioxide electrolysis depends on solving one basic problem. Nat. Commun. 11, 5231 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Ma, M. et al. Insights into the carbon balance for CO2 electroreduction on Cu using gas diffusion electrode reactor designs. Energy Environ. Sci. 13, 977–985 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Endrődi, B. et al. High carbonate ion conductance of a robust PiperION membrane allows industrial current density and conversion in a zero-gap carbon dioxide electrolyzer cell. Energy Environ. Sci. 13, 4098–4105 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Electricity Generation in Germany in January 2020 (Energy-Charts, 2020); https://energy-charts.info/charts/power/chart.htm?l=en&c=DE

  49. 49.

    Küngas, R. et al. Progress in SOEC development activities at Haldor Topsøe. ECS Trans. 91, 215–223 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    The Tax Credit for Carbon Sequestration (Section 45Q) (Congressional Research Service, 2020); https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF11455.pdf

  51. 51.

    FY 2018 Progress Report for the DOE Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program (US Department of Energy, 2019); https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy19osti/73353.pdf

  52. 52.

    Zhong, M. et al. Accelerated discovery of CO2 electrocatalysts using active machine learning. Nature 581, 178–183 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Li, T. et al. Electrolytic conversion of bicarbonate into CO in a flow cell. Joule 3, 1487–1497 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Salvatore, D. & Berlinguette, C. P. Voltage matters when reducing CO2 in an electrochemical flow cell. ACS Energy Lett. 5, 215–220 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Sun, C. N. et al. Probing electrode losses in all-vanadium redox flow batteries with impedance spectroscopy. ECS Electrochem. Lett. 2, 2013–2015 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Heinzmann, M., Weber, A. & Ivers-Tiffée, E. Advanced impedance study of polymer electrolyte membrane single cells by means of distribution of relaxation times. J. Power Sources 402, 24–33 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Xu, Q. et al. Integrated reference electrodes in anion-exchange-membrane electrolyzers: impact of stainless-steel gas-diffusion layers and internal mechanical pressure. ACS Energy Lett. 6, 305–312 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Nwabara, U. O. et al. Toward accelerated durability testing protocols for CO2 electrolysis. J. Mater. Chem. A 8, 22557–22571 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    He, M. et al. Oxygen induced promotion of electrochemical reduction of CO2 via co-electrolysis. Nat. Commun. 11, 3844 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Chae, S. Y. et al. A perspective on practical solar to carbon monoxide production devices with economic evaluation. Sustain. Energy Fuels 4, 199–212 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Larrazábal, G. O. et al. Analysis of mass flows and membrane cross-over in CO2 reduction at high current densities in an MEA-type electrolyzer. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 11, 41281–41288 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported by the US Department of Energy under award number DE-FE0031910. We thank the National Science Foundation for financially supporting H.S. (award no. CBET-1803200). We also acknowledge helpful discussions on developing the methodology of the analysis by M. Jouny, and constructive suggestions by S. Overa and B. H. Ko.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

H.S. and K.U.H. contributed equally to this work. H.S., K.U.H. and F.J. performed data analysis and wrote the manuscript. F.J. supervised the whole project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Feng Jiao.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Ung Lee and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1–8, Figs. 1–13 and Tables 1–14.

Supplementary Data 1

Spreadsheet used for computing production costs.

Supplementary Data 2

MATLAB code used for computing electrolyser voltammetric performance.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shin, H., Hansen, K.U. & Jiao, F. Techno-economic assessment of low-temperature carbon dioxide electrolysis. Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00739-x

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing