What Is Electrochemistry, and Why Is It So Important to a Green-Energy Future?

Source: By Ed Ballard, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2023

A host of startups are scrambling to hire electrochemists who they hope will usher in a new era of cleaner energy

A new method for capturing carbon dioxide is one of the ways electrochemistry may contribute to an era of greener energy. KEVIN HAND

Sadia Kabir remembers when she was introduced to electrochemistry, the branch of science that explains how chemical reactions create electricity and electricity spurs chemical reactions. She was enthralled. “It was just insane to me,” she says.

Fascination as a high-school student became a career. Now with a Ph.D. earned studying the electrochemical properties of nanomaterials, Dr. Kabir works for Twelve, a startup that is using an electrochemical process to turn captured carbon dioxide into commodity chemicals.

Thanks to booming investment in green technology, electrochemistry is an increasingly hot field. As well as being the key to better batteries, it may underpin industrial processes that don’t run on fossil fuel and help address other challenges of the energy transition.

Electrochemical systems have been around for centuries. But electrochemists say their field has long been seen as something of a backwater. Conventional chemistry education equips people for the fossil-fuel-based economy, and fields such as biochemistry have been seen as more exciting.

Now, aided by advances in materials science, that is changing. People working in electrochemistry say there is a birth-of-the-internet feeling in their field, with investors paying closer attention and colleges building stronger links with industry. And startups are hanging out “Now Hiring” signs for electrochemists.

“There’s interest from the government side, there’s interest from the universities, there’s interest from companies,” says Ms. Kabir.

 Dan Brett, a professor of electrochemical engineering at University College London, says the world is entering “the age of electrochemical power.”

Here are some of the ways electrochemistry will play a role in the future of green energy.


An economy using far less fossil fuel will need lots of batteries to store intermittent wind and solar power for when it is needed and to power electric vehicles. Electrochemistry is at the heart of efforts to develop better batteries to handle that load, because batteries store chemical energy and convert it to electrical energy through chemical reactions that create a flow of electrons from one material to another.

“Electrochemistry is the key to the energy transition because it is a foundational principle of energy storage,” says Laurie Menoud, a partner at At One Ventures, an early-stage clean-tech investor. “If energy storage is expensive and inefficient, like it is now, the transition will either be slow or not happen at all.”

A New Way to Capture Carbon

Removing carbon dioxide from the air or waste gas takes a lot of energy, making it difficult to scale. Verdox developed an electrochemical system to make the process more efficient. Instead of forcing out the captured carbon dioxide with heat, which wastes a lot of energy, the system applies a specific voltage to capture carbon dioxide, then another voltage to release it.

Gas enters and cells are activated

Air or waste gas containing CO2 flows into the carbon capture device. A specific voltage is applied that activates electrodes. These electrodes bind to the CO2. As electrodes bind to the CO2, non-CO2 gases are allowed to escape and flow from the system.

Cells are deactivated

Another specific voltage is applied to release the bound CO2. The CO2 is released and collected to be sequestered or used.

Battery makers are competing to figure out how to manufacture batteries more cheaply, as well as making batteries that last longer and are quicker to charge. That involves testing various combinations of materials with different chemical catalysts.

Many battery makers are focused on refining the lithium-ion batteries that are already used in personal electronics, electric vehicles and on the electricity grid. Others are working with materials such as iron that are more abundant and cheaper than lithium to make batteries that could store energy for longer periods.

This quest for a better battery involves identifying the best conducting materials to use in the anode and cathode electrodes of a single electrochemical cell, the right chemical catalysts to use to aid the reaction, and how to make an efficient system based on combining many cells. The same process underpins other innovations in electrochemical systems, which use different combinations of materials for different applications.


Advances in this field are crucial to efforts to make hydrogen a widely used green fuel.

Today, hydrogen is mostly used in oil refining and to make ammonia, an ingredient in many fertilizers. But it is being widely promoted as a low-carbon fuel for industrial processes.

Hydrogen is generally produced by heating natural gas—one of the compounds in which it occurs naturally—in a highly polluting process. But it can also be made without causing emissions by passing renewable electricity through water, using a machine called an electrolyzer, to split the water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Like batteries, electrolyzers are nothing new. But their cost hasn’t benefited from years of mass production, as the cost of lithium-ion batteries has. Now, with industrial companies and clean-tech investors betting on green hydrogen as a way to decarbonize industrial processes, competition is heating up for electrochemistry experts who can make electrolyzers more efficient.

“At every conference I’ve been to recently, almost every speaker gets up and says, ‘And we’re hiring!’ There’s definitely a boom in hiring of scientists and engineers right now across all of these technologies,” says Kathy Ayers, vice president of research and development at electrolyzer maker Nel Hydrogen.

As a fuel, hydrogen could be a nonpolluting replacement for oil, gas or coal. It can also be used to generate electricity.

In a process that is essentially electrolysis in reverse, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity, with water created as a byproduct. Amazon is among the companies betting on this alternative to batteries. It said last year that it wants to be using 20,000 fuel-cell-powered forklifts across 100 fulfillment centers by 2025.

Sadia Kabir, who became fascinated with electrochemistry as a high-school student, now works for Twelve, a startup that uses an electrochemical process to turn captured carbon dioxide into commodity chemicals.Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal


Other compounds besides water can be split into their constituents through electrolysis. That opens up new possibilities.

Twelve is using electrolysis to split carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide, a commodity chemical that is a building block for plastics, paints, fuels and other products.

The company last year raised $130 million of venture capital to commercialize its technology. That step depends on the company being able to refine their chemical process and scale up the system so that it can convert large volumes of carbon dioxide into products.

Carbon capture

Converting carbon dioxide on a commercial scale would need a lot of it to be captured—which presents a problem. Current methods for capturing carbon dioxide are too inefficient to have been deployed at scale. Electrochemistry could help on that front, too.

Carbon-capture machines generally work by bringing the ambient air or waste gas from a power plant or factory into contact with a chemical that selectively grabs the carbon-dioxide molecules. The process is inefficient because it takes a lot of energy—normally in the form of heat—to then release the separated carbon dioxide so that it can be used or sequestered.

Verdox, a startup founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineers, has developed what it says is a far more efficient method.

In Verdox’s system, air or waste gas passes through electrochemical cells. When a specific voltage is applied, electrodes in the cells are activated and bond with the carbon dioxide while other gases escape. When another voltage is applied, the system releases the carbon dioxide for use or to be sequestered.

Mr. Ballard is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in London and editor of the WSJ Climate & Energy newsletter. He can be reached at ed.ballard@wsj.com.