A detailed mechanistic study of the electrochemical hydrogenation of aldehydes is presented toward the goal of identifying how organic molecules in solution behave at the interface with charged surfaces and what is the best manner to convert them. Specifically, this study focuses on designing an electrocatalytic route for ambient-temperature postpyrolysis treatment of bio-oil. Aldehyde reductions are needed to convert biomass into fuels or chemicals. A combined experimental and computational approach is taken toward catalyst design to provide testable hypotheses regarding catalyst composition, activity, and selectivity. Electrochemical hydrogenation mechanisms for benzaldehyde and pentanal reduction are found to proceed by a coupled proton-electron transfer process. Initial results show that Au, Ag, Cu, and C catalysts exhibit the highest conversion to alcohol products. These catalysts are suitable because they show high cathodic onset potentials for H2 formation and low cathodic onset potentials for organic reduction. Conversion of aromatic aldehydes is found to be appreciably higher than that of aliphatic aldehydes. Classical molecular dynamics simulations of solvent and substrate mixtures in an electrolytic cell were performed to assess how species concentrations vary at the solid/liquid interface and in the bulk as a function of applied voltage. Results show that an increase in surface charge in the electrolytic cell decreases organic and increases water mole fractions at the solid/liquid interface. In this current study, charged cathodic surfaces result in carbonyl orientations at the surface that do not favor electron transfer. Repulsion of organic substrates to the bulk must be compensated by strong adhesion to the electrode surface. Implications on catalyst choice and process design are discussed.
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