Chloride-mediated selective electrosynthesis of ethylene and propylene oxides at high current density

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Science  12 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6496, pp. 1228-1233
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz8459

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Charging into epoxides

Ethylene oxide is a strained, reactive molecule produced on a vast scale as a plastics precursor. The current method of synthesis involves the direct reaction of ethylene and oxygen at high temperature, but the original protocol relied on the reduction of chlorine to produce a chlorohydrin intermediate. Leow et al. report a room temperature method that returns to the chlorine route but uses electrochemistry to generate it catalytically from chloride (see the Perspective by Barton). This efficient process uses water in place of oxygen and can be integrated with the electrochemical generation of ethylene from carbon dioxide. Propylene oxide can be produced using the same method.

Science, this issue p. 1228; see also p. 1181


Chemicals manufacturing consumes large amounts of energy and is responsible for a substantial portion of global carbon emissions. Electrochemical systems that produce the desired compounds by using renewable electricity offer a route to lower carbon emissions in the chemicals sector. Ethylene oxide is among the world’s most abundantly produced commodity chemicals because of its importance in the plastics industry, notably for manufacturing polyesters and polyethylene terephthalates. We applied an extended heterogeneous:homogeneous interface, using chloride as a redox mediator at the anode, to facilitate the selective partial oxidation of ethylene to ethylene oxide. We achieved current densities of 1 ampere per square centimeter, Faradaic efficiencies of ~70%, and product specificities of ~97%. When run at 300 milliamperes per square centimeter for 100 hours, the system maintained a 71(±1)% Faradaic efficiency throughout.

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