The research group Applied Electrochemistry and Catalysis (ELCAT) is active in the field of chemical engineering and more specifically in process and flow chemistry. The core research activities within ELCAT are related to the development of state-of-the art electrochemical reactors and catalysts, with a view towards large-scale industrial development in the field of industrial electrification, in a green and sustainable way to ultimately replace the traditional chemical processes. Their research can be subdivided in three main topics, which are interrelated: (i) electrocatalysis, (ii) electrosynthesis and (iii) electrochemical reactor engineering.
From our research topics, two major aspects of our identity as a group clearly come to the surface: (i) industrial application and (ii) green chemistry. It is our hope that by working on the different levels from the (electro)catalyst to the actual reactor, in the future industrial processes can be adapted to the environmentally more friendly electrochemical approach, rather than by the conventional chemical processes.
The first main topic, electrosynthesis, deals with the electrochemical production of organic chemicals. Applying a current opens up the possibility to pursue alternative synthesis routes, which are generally of a more environmentally benign nature. Indeed, by using electrons as an energy source to initiate the reaction, the need for high temperatures or pressures can be avoided. Moreover, using electrocatalysts and modifying the potential, the selectivity can be precisely controlled towards a specific product, eliminating the need for subsequent downstream processing, which would otherwise increase the synthesis cost and energy demands.
Electrochemical Reactor Engineering
The second main topic, electrochemical reactor engineering, combines the electrochemical aspects of activity one and two into possible industrial applications. Through the development and optimization of innovative reactors, power consumption, selectivity and production levels can be improved. Mass transport and fluid handling, when not taken care of, diminish the properties of any excellent electrocatalyst. Only when the intrinsic reaction and mass transfer kinetics are matched, an economically viable process can be established. Constructing these reactors in-house, tailored to the fundamental operating behavior of the electrocatalytic nanoparticles, allows to identify the bottlenecks and grants the possibility to properly adapt the reactor components.
The third main topic, electrocatalysis, embodies the synthesis of electrocatalytic particles, necessary to lower the overpotential while at the same time improving/maintaining the desired catalytic selectivity towards the target product and stability to keep performing under long-term operation. Several approaches are used to improve the catalytic performance including: (i) downsizing (to the nm scale); (ii) shifting to bimetallic alloy and/or core-shell nanoparticles; and (iii) improving performance through utilization of (active) 3D carbon supports. Using electrochemical screening methodologies in combination with surface characterization techniques such as tomography, the physicochemical nature of these particles is linked with their activity (overpotential), selectivity (product distribution) and stability (morphology changes).