Could nuclear help birth the hydrogen economy?

New nuclear plants could be adapted to make hydrogen for fuel, an Austrian scientist told the world’s largest scientific society.

At last month’s annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, Ibrahim Khamis, Ph.D., said that scientists and economists at IAEA and elsewhere are working intensively to determine how nuclear power reactors could be enlisted in hydrogen production.

Until now, fossil fuels such as coal and methane have typically been used to provide the electricity needed to make hydrogen, but climate friendly sources such as wind and solar (both from normal solar installations, as well as at the nanosolar scale) as well as from methane made from sewage, are all being investigated as future sources that do not depend on fossil fuels.

Oddly, nuclear reactors have been largely left out in the rush to find less carbon-intensive ways to split the hydrogen out of water for the hydrogen economy. Yet nuclear plants already produce the heat for changing water into steam and the electricity for breaking the steam down into hydrogen and oxygen.

Because of the dangers of nuclear power, building nuclear plants in developed economies have proven to be very expensive. The potential danger has led to extreme caution in regulating new nuclear plants, resulting in expensive delays and high insurance costs. Yet even current plants could be used to split hydrogen from water.

“Nuclear hydrogen from electrolysis of water or steam is a reality now, yet the economics need to be improved,” said Khamis.

While he didn’t mention any countries specifically, he noted that some countries are now considering construction of new nuclear plants that include high-temperature steam electrolysis (HTSE) stations that would allow them to generate hydrogen gas on a large scale.

This would mean that nuclear plants could moonlight as hydrogen manufacturers during the off-peak hours in the middle of the night when electricity is cheap or free. Pipelines like those used for oil or gas could be used for transporting hydrogen. (Making hydrogen has also been considered for wind farms which also have excess off-peak night electricity production.)

And the economics of nuclear could change. By far the biggest push to build new nuclear plants has come from China, which plans to build a whopping 106 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power by 2035.

These are nuclear power plans which far, far outstrip any other nation’s (let alone the countries like Germany that are abandoning it).

But China’s peculiar political setup allows it to steamroller the kind of obstacles that get in the way in democracies when it comes to building new energy sources. It easily overtook the U.S. and Germany in wind power within five years of its first plans for 17 percent wind power, for example.

With its vast unpopulated regions, it could be China that becomes the first country to really test new nuclear plants with capabilities for manufacturing hydrogen on a massive scale.

Susan Kraemer, EarthTechling