The renewable-energy-powered electrocatalytic conversion of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into carbon-based fuels provides a means for the storage of renewable energy. We sought to convert carbon monoxide—an increasingly available and low-cost feedstock that could benefit from an energy-efficient upgrade in value—into n-propanol, an alcohol that can be directly used as engine fuel. Here we report that a catalyst consisting of highly fragmented copper structures can bring C1 and C2 binding sites together, and thereby promote further coupling of these intermediates into n-propanol. Using this strategy, we achieved an n-propanol selectivity of 20% Faradaic efficiency at a low potential of −0.45 V versus the reversible hydrogen electrode (ohmic corrected) with a full-cell energetic efficiency of 10.8%. We achieved a high reaction rate that corresponds to a partial current density of 8.5 mA cm–2 for n-propanol.

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This work was supported by the Ontario Research Fund Research-Excellence Program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada, the CIFAR Bio-Inspired Solar Energy programme, and the University of Toronto Connaught Program. This research used synchrotron resources of the Advanced Photon Source, an Office of Science User Facility operated for the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science by the Argonne National Laboratory, and was supported by the US DOE under contract no. DE-AC02-06CH11357, and the Canadian Light Source and its funding partners. The authors thank Z. Finfrock and M. J. Ward for technical support at the Sector 20BM beamline. D.S. acknowledges the NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship. J.L. acknowledges the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program. All DFT computations were performed on the IBM BlueGene/Q supercomputer with support from the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform (SOSCIP). SOSCIP is funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario, the Province of Ontario, IBM Canada, Ontario Centres of Excellence, Mitacs and 15 Ontario academic member institutions.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Yuanjie Pang and Jun Li.


  1. Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

    • Yuanjie Pang
    • , Jun Li
    • , Jonathan P. Edwards
    • , Yi Xu
    •  & David Sinton
  2. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

    • Yuanjie Pang
    • , Jun Li
    • , Ziyun Wang
    • , Chih-Shan Tan
    • , Tao-Tao Zhuang
    • , Zhi-Qin Liang
    • , Chengqin Zou
    • , Xue Wang
    • , Fengwang Li
    • , Cao-Thang Dinh
    • , Miao Zhong
    •  & Edward H. Sargent
  3. School of Optical and Electronic Information, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, Hubei, China

    • Yuanjie Pang
    • , Yuanhao Lou
    •  & Dan Wu
  4. Department of Materials Science and Engineering, National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu, Hsinchu, Taiwan

    • Pei-Lun Hsieh
    •  & Lih-Juann Chen
  5. Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

    • Phil De Luna


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E.H.S. and D.S. supervised the project. Y.P. and J.L. designed the CORR experiments. Y.P., J.L., T.-T.Z., X.W. and Y.X. carried out the CORR experiments. P.D.L. assisted the catalyst preparation. J.L. carried out the operando XAS characterization. Z.W. performed the DFT calculations. C.-S.T., P.-L.H. and L.-J.C. carried out TEM imaging. Y.P., Y. L. and D.W. performed the TEM analysis. Y.P., J.L., Z.-Q.L, C.Z., J.P.E., C.-T.D., F.L. and M.Z. carried out the product detection via NMR and gas chromatography. Z.-Q.L. carried out the XRD characterization. All the authors discussed the results and assisted during manuscript preparation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Edward H. Sargent or David Sinton.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–42 and Supplementary Tables 1–2.

  2. Supplementary Data 1

    Data associated to Fig. 4.

  3. Supplementary Data 2

    Optimized geometry for the initial state of CO dimerization on copper interface model.

  4. Supplementary Data 3

    Optimized geometry for the final state of CO dimerization on copper interface model.

  5. Supplementary Data 4

    Optimized geometry for the transition state of CO dimerization on copper interface model.

  6. Supplementary Data 5

    Optimized geometry for the initial state of CO-OCCO coupling on copper interface model.

  7. Supplementary Data 6

    Optimized geometry for the final state of of CO-OCCO coupling on copper interface model.

  8. Supplementary Data 7

    Optimized geometry for the transition state of CO-OCCO coupling on copper interface model.

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