What is electrosynthesis?

e-Refinery is based on electrochemical conversion technology, or electrosynthesis. This is the synthesis of chemical compounds using electricity in an electrochemical cell. This cell basically consists of electrodes, an electrolyte and liquid or gaseous reactants (see figure below). The method was developed more than 160 years ago. Now, its green potential has been rediscovered. It makes sustainable and ‘green’ chemistry possible with the use of surplus power from renewable sources, such as wind or solar energy.

The potential advantages using electrosynthesis as production method of fuels and feedstock include high selectivity of products, scalability, less wasteful side reactions, less energy loss, less chemicals spent, often fewer reaction steps than conventional methods and the possibility to integrate it in existing industry. Nonetheless, historically, electrochemical synthesis has been limited to a narrow spectrum of reactions and chemicals, which is often attributed to a lag in chemical and engineering technology, the prohibitive capital costs, and the presence of a cheaper fossil energy alternative.

One major exception concerns the chloralkali process where electrosynthesis of an aqueous solution of NaCl is used to produce the bulk chemicals chlorine and sodium hydroxide: one of the largest chemical processes worldwide. Although commodity-scale implementation of the electrosynthesis technology is still far away, the first positive business cases in the production of high-value chemicals are emerging, with many more expected on the short term.