Energy- and carbon-efficient CO2/CO electrolysis to multicarbon products via asymmetric ion migration–adsorption. Carbon dioxide/monoxide (CO2/CO) electrolysis provides a means to convert emissions into multicarbon products.
However, impractical energy and carbon efficiencies limit current systems. Here we show that these inefficiencies originate from uncontrolled gas/ion distributions in the local reaction environment. Understanding of the flows of cations and anions motivated us to seek a route to block cation migration to the catalyst surface—a strategy we instantiate using a covalent organic framework (COF) in bulk heterojunction with a catalyst. The π-conjugated hydrophobic COFs constrain cation (potassium) diffusion via cation–π interactions, while promoting anion (hydroxide) and gaseous feedstock adsorption on the catalyst surface. As a result, a COF-mediated catalyst enables electrosynthesis of multicarbon products from CO for 200 h at a single-pass carbon efficiency of 95%, an energy efficiency of 40% and a current density of 240 mA cm−2.