Nuclear-based Hydrogen Production Breakthrough

Will nuclear power fuel a future “hydrogen economy”? Researchers at DOE’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) think so, as they have demonstrated how nuclear power could be used to efficiently produce large quantities of hydrogen.

The INEEL researchers have teamed with the Salt Lake City-based Ceramatec to produce hydrogen using high-temperature electrolysis. While conventional electrolysis involves running an electrical current through water to produce hydrogen and oxygen — typically at conversion efficiencies of about 30 percent — high-temperature electrolysis is able to achieve substantially higher conversion efficiencies. INEEL researchers said that they’ve been able to convert 45 to 50 percent of the input energy into hydrogen using their high-temperature electrolysis process, which produces 50 liters of hydrogen per hour. Since the process requires both electricity and a high-temperature heat source, nuclear reactors are ideal for the task. “The simple and modular approach we’ve taken with our research partners produces either hydrogen or electricity, and most notable of all – achieves the highest-known production rate of hydrogen by high-temperature electrolysis,” said lead INEEL researcher Steve Herring. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is actively exploring hydrogen production technologies using fossil, nuclear and renewable resources in hopes to revolutionize the way the Nation’s cars, homes and businesses are powered. Fuel cell vehicles running on hydrogen produce no pollutants or carbon emissions. However, most current processes for manufacturing hydrogen do produce pollutants and carbon emissions. The DOE is quick to label all their hydrogen related efforts as focused on “clean” modes of hydrogen production, but production from renewable energy is the only truly clean process. So far, the DOE has appeared more interested in both fossil and nuclear options for future hydrogen production. A realistic scenario for the use of so called “clean” coal technologies for creating hydrogen is likely to produce both pollutants and carbon emissions. Nuclear technologies can largely eliminate pollutants and carbon emissions from the initial manufacturing process, but scientists have yet to find a good solution to dealing with spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive byproducts. In fairness to the DOE’s varied efforts, hydrogen produced solely by clean, renewable energy has a tendency to be less efficient and more costly than some other options. There simply is no easy answer to a major shift to a hydrogen economy, but the research continues The INEEL nuclear demonstration process follows the DOE’s recent announcement of a US$2 million grant to Ceramatec who is teamed with INEEL, University of Washington, and Hoeganaes Corporation in Riverton, New Jersey. The team will continue to work remaining challenges to lower costs, increase materials durability and improve efficiency of the solid oxide electrolyzer technology.