Electrons to Molecules

Electrons to molecules focuses on efficient, low-carbon pathways for creating fuels, materials, and chemicals.

Science background with colorful molecule models.

To achieve our vision, we must contribute to deep decarbonization across multiple sectors, including hard-to-decarbonize areas such as fuels and manufacturing. Electrons to molecules is the use of affordable, renewable electricity as the driving force for the conversion of low-energy molecules—such as water and carbon dioxide (CO2)—to generate cleaner, higher-value, and higher-energy chemicals, fuels, and materials.

Key research areas include:

  • Green hydrogen generation (cost-competitive, carbon emissions-free)
  • CO2 capture and use
  • Low-carbon and energy-dense biofuels
  • Novel industrial processes that use renewable electricity for creating the products we need for our economic prosperity.

Through this research, NREL and partners are working together to rethink how common industrial manufacturing processes will respond to a world that desires low-carbon products and processes and access to relatively inexpensive, green electricity.

The Challenge

While several approaches for upgrading CO2 to chemicals and fuels exist, the ability to accomplish this in a cost-effective, low-carbon manner has proven elusive. Historically, our manufacturing system has been based on the conversion and manipulation of chemical bonds within fossil fuels to make products. Chemical approaches using catalysis and bio-catalysis can transform a variety of feedstocks (starter materials) including CO2, biomass, and fossil fuels into the same products we use today—as well as future products with enhanced performance. Industrial interest in CO2 capture and conversion is growing, and when combined with low-cost, abundant, renewable electricity, it will provide new low-carbon, low-cost routes to chemicals, materials, and fuels.

Markets beyond power generation will look for technology options to use this energy source more effectively. Additionally, the ability to store this energy in the form of chemical bonds could create new opportunities, enabling electricity generated by renewable sources to be used hours, months, or even years later.

How We Get There

NREL is prepared to lead the research on the conversion of electricity and materials such as CO2 and water into high-value chemical precursors. Researchers are developing efficient, electricity-driven processes that transform these readily available and low-cost materials into reactive intermediates. They are coupling them with biological or catalytic processes to generate compounds to make plastics, fibers, and fuels.

Besides the conversion of CO2 and water, NREL also will investigate the use of electricity-driven processes to convert other materials such as nitrogen to ammonia, transform fossil fuels and biomass into chemicals, deconstruct plastics for recycling and reuse, and refine ores to generate metals.

Working Together

These challenges require sensible solutions. Working with industry, government, research, and nonprofit partners, we can achieve them far faster and more efficiently than working on them alone. NREL is committed to ensuring our research gets to market—where it can improve everyday life and strengthen our economy. Learn more about working with NREL.