In Situ Infrared Spectroscopy Reveals Persistent Alkalinity near Electrode Surfaces during CO<sub>2</sub> Electroreduction

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Over the past decade, electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction has become a thriving area of research with the aim of converting electricity to renewable chemicals and fuels. Recent advances through catalyst development have significantly improved selectivity and activity. However, drawing potential dependent structure-activity relationships has been complicated, not only due to the ill-defined and intricate morphological and mesoscopic structure of electrocatalysts, but also by immense concentration gradients existing between the electrode surface and bulk solution. In this work, by using in situ surface enhanced infrared absorption spectroscopy (SEIRAS) and computational modeling, we explicitly show that commonly used strong phosphate buffers cannot sustain the interfacial pH during CO2 electroreduction on copper electrodes at relatively low current densities, <10 mA/cm2. The pH near the electrode surface was observed to be as much as 5 pH units higher compared to bulk solution in 0.2 M phosphate buffer at potentials relevant to the formation of hydrocarbons (-1 V vs RHE), even on smooth polycrystalline copper electrodes. Drastically increasing the buffer capacity did not stand out as a viable solution for the problem as the concurrent production of hydrogen increased dramatically, which resulted in a breakdown of the buffer in a narrow potential range. These unforeseen results imply that most of the studies, if not all, on electrochemical CO2 reduction to hydrocarbons in CO2 saturated aqueous solutions were evaluated under mass transport limitations on copper electrodes. We underscore that the large concentration gradients on electrodes with high local current density (e.g., nanostructured) have important implications on the selectivity, activity, and kinetic analysis, and any attempt to draw structure-activity relationships must rule out mass transport effects.