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New Catalyst and Solar Process Produces Low Cost Hydrogen

New Catalyst and Solar Process Produces Low Cost Hydrogen

Small ruthenium particles and a solar-powered…

Hydrogen Economy Gets A Boost With New Low-Cost Catalyst

Hydrogen Economy Gets A Boost With New Low-Cost Catalyst

Scientists from Argonne National Laboratory…

Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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The Nuclear Option For Hydrogen

Nuclear power

Hydrogen was thrust into the spotlight as a promising clean energy source by President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address. President Bush touted the potential for a “hydrogen economy” that would greatly slow the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since then, billions of dollars have been invested in an attempt to realize this vision.

Hydrogen’s appeal is obvious. When hydrogen is combusted in an engine or consumed in a fuel cell, it combines with oxygen to form water. Thus, a car running on hydrogen is primarily emitting water vapor as a waste product.

Hydrogen’s Dirty Secret

However, whether hydrogen truly has a low carbon footprint hinges on how the hydrogen is produced.

Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is almost exclusively tied up in various compounds. Hydrogen gas is reactive, and thus there do not exist deposits of hydrogen that can be exploited.

The vast majority of the world’s commercial hydrogen — over 95% by most estimates — is produced using the steam methane reforming process (SMR). In this process, natural gas is reacted with steam at an elevated temperature to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen (which is synthesis gas, or simply syngas). A subsequent reaction — the water gas shift reaction — then reacts additional steam with the carbon monoxide to produce additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

As I explained in last year’s article Estimating The Carbon Footprint Of Hydrogen Production, the carbon footprint of hydrogen production via SMR is high. In fact, more carbon is generated in the production of hydrogen via SMR than if you simply burned the methane used to make the hydrogen. Related: Oil Rises To Seven-Week High On Strong Remand Recovery

So, why do we make hydrogen using this method? It has historically been the cheapest method of large scale hydrogen production.

50 Shades of Hydrogen

Some have attempted to classify hydrogen production using a color scheme. Grey hydrogen denotes hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, such as via the SMR process. Thus, most of the world’s hydrogen production is grey.

However, it is possible to capture the carbon dioxide produced in this process. The carbon can then be sequestered or otherwise used for other purposes. This lowers the carbon footprint, and can result in the subsequent hydrogen being classified as “blue hydrogen.”

Blue hydrogen is produced using non-renewable resources, but it meets the threshold of a low carbon footprint. Depending on the process, blue hydrogen can be produced from fossil fuels, but it can also be produced from nuclear power.

Green hydrogen meets the low-carbon threshold, but it is produced using renewable resources. For example, electricity from solar power can be used to electrolyze water into its constituents, hydrogen and water. Renewable production of hydrogen is the idealized vision of the hydrogen economy, but there are some obstacles that have thus far kept this vision from being realized.

The biggest issue with green hydrogen is the cost. It simply isn’t yet cost effective enough to produce hydrogen using intermittent renewables. It could become cost effective if the renewable supply is overbuilt, and hydrogen production only takes place when there is excess electricity being produced. However, that means that all of the associated hydrogen production equipment is only being utilized a small fraction of the time. Related: Investors Skeptical of Big Oil’s Green Plans

Because of the low capacity factor of renewables, the subsequent capital costs of the hydrogen equipment drive the price quite high per unit of mass of hydrogen produced. Current estimates put green hydrogen production at roughly twice the cost of hydrogen production via SMR, but with a carbon footprint that is about 80% lower. Costs are expected to come down, but it will be challenging because of the intermittency.

The Nuclear Option

This is where nuclear power can make a huge impact. A hydrogen economy will require a massive increase in hydrogen production. That means scalable options. Hydrogen can be produced from nuclear power in a scalable fashion in two different ways.

First is simply using nuclear power to produce electricity, which is then used to electrolyze water. This would be the same process as that used to produce green hydrogen, except in this case, it would utilize nuclear power at a capacity factor of 90% instead of renewables at 20% to 40% capacity factor. That, in turn, drives down the cost of hydrogen production.

2020 paper in Applied Energy estimated the carbon footprint of hydrogen production via a number of different methods, and concluded that hydrogen production via nuclear electricity has a comparable carbon footprint to hydrogen produced by renewables.

However, the cost via this route is still high. It has been estimated to be comparable in cost to the renewables route. The primary reason is that electrolysis isn’t especially efficient. Generally about 20% of the power used to produce hydrogen from electrolysis is utilized in the process. Or, to put it another way, for a given input of electricity you only get 0.8 equivalent units of hydrogen back out.

Although that’s not terrible, there is an even cheaper way to produce hydrogen from nuclear power. Instead of using electricity, methane — with its four hydrogen atoms — can be thermally decomposed to carbon and hydrogen. This is a high-temperature process called thermal decomposition of methane (TDM) or simply methane pyrolysis.

In the non-catalytic process, methane pyrolysis occurs only at temperatures above 1100–1200 °C. That implies a steep energy requirement. However, catalysts can reduce the temperature requirement. Nickel catalysts have been shown to work effectively in a temperature range of 500–700 °C, while iron catalysts have shown good success at 700–900 °C.


There are two primary factors here that can give hydrogen production costs that are competitive with SMR. The first is that even though carbon is produced in this process, it is pure solid carbon, or so-called black carbon.

Solid carbon is used in all sorts of applications, hence capturing and utilizing this stream would be significantly simpler than capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide. One of the promising emerging applications is for carbon black to be potentially used to  produce carbon-fiber, a valuable alternative to the strongest industrial materials available today, essentially as a free by-product.

The second factor is that these temperatures are available in nuclear power plants, and to an even greater degree, in advanced nuclear reactor technologies. So-called Generation-IV nuclear technologies provide much higher temperature operation – ranging from 500 to 1,000o C – and hence can provide heat directly to an industrial process, rather than converting heat to electricity and suffering thermal efficiency losses in the bargain.

“Advanced high-temperature nuclear systems like Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR can provide much of the energy required in the form of lower cost heat,” said Dr. David LeBlanc, Chief Technology Officer of nuclear technology developer, Terrestrial Energy.

“A key advantage of methane pyrolysis is that it requires the lowest energy input to create hydrogen, almost 8 times lower than by electrolysis of water. With methane pyrolysis powered by high-temperature nuclear, the energy output of the hydrogen produced is several times higher than for the low temperature electrolysis process. This is how a hydrogen economy can possibly be enabled at a global scale.”

If the world is serious about developing a massive clean hydrogen economy, hydrogen from nuclear power has to be given serious consideration. It is the only low-carbon option that is deployable at large scale, and that operates with a high capacity factor.

By Robert Rapier

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on May 04 2021 said:
    Why all this sudden enthusiasm for hydrogen? Whether green, blue or grey, hydrogen is more expensive to produce than natural gas. Furthermore, it needs far more energy to produce than it will eventually provide.

    If this is the case, wouldn’t be far more economical to skip the production of hydrogen altogether and use natural gas directly to generate electricity while employing carbon capture technologies to prevent CO2 being released?

    Why not use the solar electricity or nuclear energy used in electrolysis instead to enhance current electricity generation and make it cheaper to customers rather than using a convoluted process of electrolyzing it and then use it to generate electricity thus adding to customers’ costs.

    Furthermore, steam generated from high temperatures produced by nuclear energy could be used to generate more electricity in a combined circle or drive water desalination plants to provide drinking and irrigation waters particularly in the Arab Gulf region thus replacing oil and natural gas.

    A downside to the nuclear option is that out of 195 countries in the world, only 30 or 15% generate nuclear energy.

    The only country in the world where a hydrogen economy could possibly succeed is Iceland. The reason is that it has plentiful geothermal power and water. Geothermal power already generates virtually all Iceland’s electricity.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • John Branscombe on May 05 2021 said:
    Nuclear power with rapid dispatch abilities to power a green hydrogen production system could greatly change how nuclear power can be used.

    Traditional thinking has had nuclear power plants completely as a source of baseload supply. They are something that can vary output only slowly and are mostly relied on to supply as much power as they can at a steady rate.

    With intermittent renewables, they are not flexible enough to adapt quickly to changing conditions. Hydro and gas-fired power plants are needed to match the ever-changing supply and demand.

    If nuclear plants could be run flat out and optionally quickly divert power to hydrogen production when there was surplus, then gas-powered generators could be sooner retired, and maybe fewer dams needed.
  • Henry Hewitt on May 05 2021 said:
    Thanks Robert,

    "Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is almost exclusively tied up in various compounds."

    It's almost exclusively tied up with Helium in reactors like the one 92 million miles from here.

    If I read you right, you are advocating something we don't need more of provided by something we can't afford which also packs extraordinary risk.

    Miles from PV for EVs already come for a penny or two and the math is simple: 1 acre with 200 kW of PV and 2,000 hours of sun = 400,000 kWh every damn year, providing 1.5 million miles.

    Hydrogen will never touch either of these numbers. Perhaps for big trucks and ships it will have some use but we shall see. The burden of proof is on the terrestrial hydrogen crowd and so far they haven't met it.
  • David Chura on May 06 2021 said:
    Do you think it is right to send a space vehicle up as often as they are going and NOT taking a load of radioactive waste to send it into the sun for disposal?

    The media should be screaming loud enough so that every space vehicle disposes of radio active waste,

Leave a comment

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