The Potential for Electrons to Molecules Using Solar Energy

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Solar photovoltaics (PV) do and will continue to play an important role in the electric power sector and can potentially support other sectors that are in need of decarbonized energy sources. Chemicals such as hydrogen, ammonia, and hydrocarbons including ethylene are currently produced from natural gas and crude oil. Thus, processes to produce them emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases both directly and in upstream feedstock recovery processes. Electrons-to-molecules (E2M) technologies are being developed to convert carbon dioxide, water, and atmospheric nitrogen to desired chemical products and they are large electricity loads. Thus, they are emerging as a potential applications for PV. In its essence, they can act as electrochemical energy storage, thereby providing a means to further utilize the energy generated from PV and store it in molecular form. E2M systems offer an array of potential products and system designs that can be tailored to different end-uses and applications. It involves electrochemical conversion which uses electricity to break molecular bonds and produce new molecules. Various electrochemical conversion technologies split water into hydrogen and oxygen, reduce carbon dioxide into other hydrocarbon molecules, and several other possible combinations. While this Chapter does not attempt to provide an exhaustive summary or analysis of the potential products from E2M systems, it does provide an initial overview of the potential opportunities and challenges for PV and E2M systems in this space. This Chapter considers the potential for E2M to produce key chemicals and fuels that currently rely on hydrocarbons for production, either as a reactant or a source of high-grade heat.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages72
StatePublished - 2021

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-78719


  • ammonia
  • carbon monoxide
  • co2 utilization
  • electrolysis
  • electrons to molecules
  • ethanol
  • ethylene
  • formate
  • formic acid
  • hydrogen
  • methane
  • methanol
  • solar energy
  • thermochemical conversion


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