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Turning Nuclear Power into the Hydrogen Economy

The technology for a nuclear plant to also create hydrogen fuel has been around for decades, according to IAEA member Ibrahim Khamis, Ph.D., who spoke at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on Sunday, and could help us into the long-heralded “hydrogen economy”.

The term “hydrogen economy” was first coined back in 1970 by former professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University John Bockris during a talk he gave in 1970 at General Motors Technical Center. In short, it refers to an era where gasoline, diesel, and other fossil fuels are laid by the wayside and hydrogen powers our world.

Steam from Philippsburg nuclear power plant

Spin up to 2012, and according to Khamis, we have the technology to convert the steam created at nuclear power plants into hydrogen using a process termed electrolysis.

“There is rapidly growing interest around the world in hydrogen production using nuclear power plants as heat sources,” Khamis said. “Hydrogen production using nuclear energy could reduce dependence on oil for fueling motor vehicles and the use of coal for generating electricity. In doing so, hydrogen could have a beneficial impact on global warming, since burning hydrogen releases only water vapor and no carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. There is a dramatic reduction in pollution.”

Khamis said scientists and economists at IAEA and elsewhere are working intensively to determine how current nuclear power reactors — 435 are operational worldwide — and future nuclear power reactors could be enlisted in hydrogen production.

Most current production of hydrogen comes from natural gas or coal and results in the production of carbon dioxide. However there are smaller scale electrolysis projects in use, a process which sends an electric current flowing through water, splitting the H2O molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, and is more efficient if the electric current is passed through steam.

Experts believe that existing nuclear power plants can be adapted using a low-temperature electrolysis which can take advantage of low electricity prices during the plant’s off-peak hours to produce hydrogen. For plants being designed and in construction, a more efficient, high-temperature electrolysis process can be coupled with thermochemical processes, and is currently under research and development.

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

True, economically viable possibility down the road? Or pipe dream?

Source: American Chemical Society
Image Source: Dmitry Klimenko

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