International Summer School “Power to X :

Fundamentals and Applications of Modern Electrosynthesis”

On August 27th – 31st 2018 internationally renowned researches from academia and industry shared their experience with a group of master, PhD students as well as post-docs and young scientists at the International Summer School “Power to X : Fundamentals and Applications of Modern Electrosynthesis” organized by PD Dr. Peter Broekmann (University of Bern), Prof. Dr. Matthias Arenz (University of Bern) and Prof. Dr. Thomas Schmidt (Paul Scherrer Institut). The meeting took place in the heart of the Alpes Vaudoises – Villars, Switzerland.

The program of the school included eleven invited talks disclosing the meaning of the Power-to-X approach, where X can refer to power-to-chemicals, power-to-hydrogen, power-to-liquid schemes. The organizers managed to combine both fundamental research as well the industrial progress to complete and fulfill the overall understanding of the Energy Transition. The poster session (32 posters) allowed the audience to present their input into the field. All the participants were also invited to visit the Alp Salt Mines labyrinth located nearby in Bex.

Before diving into the world of electrocatalysis and renewable fuels, Prof. Dr. Hans Geerlings from TU Delft (Netherlands) gave us a historical overview on the energy transition, the evolution of energy consumption and its direct relation with the human development level. Being aware of all the economic numbers we were ready to switch to the main topic of his talk – large scale synthesis of Solar Fuels and the role of the electrochemical conversions in it. Following the topic of the sustainable technologies development, Prof. Dr. Javier Pérez-Ramírez from the ETHZ (Switzerland) shared with us the main strategies for the catalysts design and introduced us the variety of materials recently developed by his team for various heterogeneous reactions.
Pursuing the same goal of the design principles of the electrocatalysts, the talk of Prof. Dr. Yang Shao-Horn from MIT (USA) was dedicated to the necessity of identifying the proper reaction descriptors. In this presentation the development of two groups of materials was nicely illustrated by numerous theoretical and experimental works: ion conducting polymers for Li-ion batteries and metal oxides for the oxygen evolution reaction in water electrolyzers. Possessing a highly active catalyst is not enough for the overall efficient performance of the electrochemical conversion device, where the preparation of the electrode, its structure and composition play a huge role. Focusing on the polymer electrolyte membrane water electrolysis Prof. Dr. Simon Thiele working in Forschungszentrum Jülich (Germany) demonstrated the influence of the membrane electrode assemblies manufacturing on the electrolysis performance as well as the analytical methods available to their investigation.
Knowing the bulk structure of the catalyst does not guarantee you the understanding of the reaction mechanisms taking place at the electrode/electrolyte interface. The discussion of the surface science approach for the studies of the electrocatalysts was held by Prof. Dr. Ib Chorkendorff from DTU (Denmark).
The development of the green CO2-free technologies such as polymer electrolyte fuel cells is crucial for our sustainable future but there are other ways to impact the climate changes. One of the examples demonstrated at the meeting is Climeworks, a Swiss company providing CO2 captured from the air to various industrial partners. Its representative, head of marketing and sales, Dr. Daniel Egger described the main projects of the company including the utilization of CO2 to produce the carbonate minerals in Iceland. The CO2 capture plants produced and sold by Climeworks are scalable and can be located independently of emission sources.
Another company working on the CO2 problem presented at the summer school was Siemens (Germany). Dr. Günter Schmid explained the basics of CO2 reduction on metal electrodes as well as the problems related to the scaling up of this electrochemical process. The name of this summer school “Power to X” emphasizes that the current research in this field is not only restricted to hydrogen-based technologies and CO2 reduction, but also includes more complex organic products, as shown by Prof. Dr. Siegfried Waldvogel from the University of Mainz (Germany). Prof. Dr. Thomas Wirth from the University of Cardiff (UK) completed this subject by the presentation of new organic microreactors for flow synthesis processes. Similar to the others, both of these talks discussed the possibility of scaling – up of the electrifying organic synthesis and discussion of the corresponding cells, their pro and cons. Talking about the equipment, the potentiostat, the best friend of any electrochemist, its anatomy is not straightforward to most of us. The fundamentals of electrochemical instrumentations were discussed during the presentation and further tutorials session by Dr. Soma Vesztergom working at the University of Budapest (Hungary). During his talk he showed some typical mistakes one may make during resistance or cyclic voltammetry measurements whereas later. Later, during a hands-on tutorial he answered the practical questions and problems from the audience.
The final talk of the summer school was given by Prof. Dr. Rohan Akolkar from the Case Western Reserve University (USA) and was devoted to industrial scale production of metals by high temperature molten salt electrolysis such as aluminum and titanium.
In conclusion, the Summer school was a helpful event for students to get an insight and overview about the diversity of approaches targeting the Power-to-X approach. The wide range of contributions from fundamental science to mature technologies highlighted the complexity of challenges society needs to face in order to implement the concept into the energy system. The high attendance of participants all over Europe also provided the opportunities for networking and initiate future collaborations.