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SRTC Research into Hydrogen Production from Nuclear Energy
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by Ed Danko, Savannah River Technology Center

Achieving the goal of a hydrogen economy will require safe, cost-effective methods for producing and distributing hydrogen in the large quantities needed to supply a major portion of the national energy and transportation needs.  A recent National Academy of Sciences report [1] estimated that 100 million metric tons of hydrogen would be needed in 2050 to meet the nation’s light-duty vehicle needs alone.  This will require that hydrogen be produced from a variety of primary energy sources, including renewables, fossil fuels (with carbon sequestration) and nuclear energy.  Hydrogen production from nuclear energy can provide a significant portion of the future hydrogen demand.  Furthermore, centralized hydrogen production using nuclear power combined with industrial hydrogen users can provide one possible route for overcoming the “chicken-and-egg” problem that continues to confound efforts to establish a hydrogen economy.

Next generation (Gen IV), high-temperature, nuclear reactors can be combined with thermochemical hydrogen production processes to dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen through a series of thermally driven chemical reactions.  Nuclear fuel and water are the only consumables, and the process generates no air pollutants or greenhouse gases.  By avoiding the need to generate electricity prior to water-splitting, thermochemical cycles are the most efficient means of using high temperature heat to produce hydrogen.  Heat is needed at 900 to 1000 ºC, and it can be supplied by either solar receivers or high temperature nuclear reactors.  Nuclear reactors have the advantage of providing continuous heat at very high capacity factors, thus avoiding the need for high temperature energy storage that is necessary for solar approaches to thermochemical hydrogen production.

The next generation reactors are modular in nature (600 MWth versus 3000 MWth for conventional light water reactors), and they can be located underground for added security.  The reactors use a refractory-type nuclear fuel, and are designed to be passively safe (natural forces preclude the possibility of fuel melting).  Hydrogen produced in this manner could provide a new source of fuel for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, thus fulfilling the goals of the President’s FreedomCAR initiative, which seeks to develop a transportation system independent of petroleum. The following schematic illustrates a potential hydrogen future that includes a reactor facility, thermochemical plant, hydrogen storage, pipeline network, and potential end-users.

[1] Report of the National Research Council, The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, And R&D Needs. (2004).

The Savannah River Technology Center (SRTC) has assembled a multi-disciplinary team comprised of academic, industrial and federal laboratory partners to help analyze this option. The SRTC Team was awarded a three year project by the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to identify and analyze the key aspects of nuclear hydrogen production, with particular emphasis on the hydrogen infrastructure issues.  The objective of this research study is to identify, characterize, and evaluate the critical technical and economic issues associated with centralized hydrogen production based on thermochemical decomposition of water using heat from a nuclear reactor. This study will also address hydrogen production, storage, distribution, and end-user integration. During the second phase of the project, a preconceptual design for a test-case commercial prototype plant providing export hydrogen to a chemical plant hydrogen user will be prepared, and the needs and path forward for commercialization of the nuclear hydrogen option will be addressed.

SRTC is the applied research center for the DOE Savannah River Site (SRS).  In the early 1950’s, SRS was established to produce specialty nuclear materials (including tritium, an isotope of hydrogen) for national defense.  The safe and efficient handling and storing of hydrogen for use in defense mission applications have been ongoing activities at SRS for over 50 years.  SRS occupies 310 square miles on a reservation in South Carolina and has five retired nuclear reactors. The site is exceptionally well characterized, and the potential exists for a future nuclear hydrogen energy park at this location.

The SRTC Team has entered into the second year of the study, and the preliminary results to date have been promising. The total capital cost for the nuclear hydrogen production plant is estimated to be approximately $1500 per kW of hydrogen produced.  Infrastructure issues, such as onsite hydrogen storage, pipeline transport, oxygen by-product sales, and integration with an end-user were analyzed. In addition, a comparison of nuclear hydrogen costs with hydrogen costs for several types of plants that produce and utilize hydrogen from steam reforming of natural gas were conducted. Plants considered included package hydrogen plants (20 TPD), large hydrogen plants (200 TPD), integrated grass roots ammonia plants (200 TPD H2), and existing ammonia plants. The study indicated that the delivered hydrogen cost of about $1.40 per kilogram (assuming an oxygen credit) from the nuclear plant is competitive with hydrogen produced for the other plants considering a natural gas price of ≥ $5 per million BTU and a cost of $40 per ton of CO2 for carbon capture and sequestration.  The existing ammonia plant, with sunk costs for the steam reformer, is the most challenging application.  Further economic analysis and sensitivity studies are currently in progress.

Centralized hydrogen production supplying hydrogen to large industrial users could represent an attractive transition strategy to a hydrogen economy. The cost of delivering hydrogen from a nuclear hydrogen plant through a regional pipeline to industrial users appears to be economically competitive. However, additional distribution costs and end-of-pipeline processing plus retailing costs would result in greater costs for commercial hydrogen users, such as refueling stations. These costs are currently being analyzed.

The commercial users could be added to the hydrogen pipeline as a hydrogen economy develops and the need arises.

Co-Authors contact information:

Ed Danko
Project Manager, Hydrogen Technology Laboratory
Westinghouse Savannah River Company
Savannah River Technology Center
Bldg. 773-41A Room 254
Aiken, SC 29808
Phone: (803) 725-4264
Email: edward.danko@srs.gov

Bill Summers
Manager, Hydrogen Program
Westinghouse Savannah River Company
Savannah River Technology Center
Bldg. 773-42A
Aiken, SC 29808
Phone: (803) 725-7766
Email: william.summers@srs.gov ©2003. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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