Research Seminar: Voltage as a driving force for small molecule separations and activations

January 23, 2023 @ 10:30 am – 11:30 am

Zachary SchifferZachary Schiffer
Resnick Sustainability Postdoctoral Scholar, Caltech

Abstract: In chemical synthesis, making and breaking chemical bonds often requires traversing large energy differences. Traditionally, industrial chemical processes have relied on pressure and temperature as driving forces, and the energy generally comes from fossil fuels. However, with the advent of distributed and accessible renewable electricity, it is attractive to consider driving these chemical processes with renewable electricity instead. In this talk, I will first look at the broad question of how to compare electrochemical routes with traditional thermochemical routes for chemical transformations, comparing voltage, temperature, and pressure as thermodynamic driving forces. Second, I will discuss how electrochemistry can enable access to renewable carbon feedstocks, i.e., carbon dioxide. Specifically, I will discuss how voltage can efficiently drive the separation of carbon dioxide from ocean water for capture and utilization. Third, I will discuss electrochemical ammonia activation. Ammonia has one of the largest global production rates by volume and is a nexus synthesis molecule, either directly or indirectly providing nitrogen for a range of molecules such as polymers and pharmaceuticals. I will discuss how an applied potential can help form carbon-nitrogen bonds, an electrochemical analogue to traditional reductive amination. I will also briefly talk about an energy storage paradigm that leverages ammonium formate, a combination of ammonia and formic acid, to store renewable electricity. Overall, I will start with the broad question of why and when to use voltage in the chemical industry, and then I will focus on how electrochemistry can aid processes such as capturing carbon dioxide and ammonia utilization.

Bio: Zachary Schiffer is currently a Resnick Sustainability Postdoctoral Scholar with Prof. Harry Atwater at Caltech, where his research focuses on electrochemical carbon capture from seawater and photocatalytic nitrogen reduction. He completed his Ph.D. in Fall 2021 with Prof. Karthish Manthiram at the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering. His graduate thesis work focused broadly on exploring electrification and decarbonization routes for industrial chemical processes, with a focus on the development of electrochemical routes for ambient-condition nitrogen cycle reactions. In general, his research combines fundamental thermodynamics, kinetic analysis techniques, computational chemistry, and materials synthesis to explore electrochemical systems. Before his Ph.D., he completed a B.S.E. in Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University, performing his senior thesis work on the mechanics of Li-ion batteries with Prof. Craig Arnold.

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