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One view of a Next-Generation Nuclear/High Temperature Electrolysis System. Click to enlarge.

The development of different means of hydrogen production (not dependent upon natural gas) for use in transportation and energy systems remains one of the longer-term priorities of the US Department of Energy.

Accordingly, the agency has made grants to five specific nuclear hydrogen research projects as part of a larger $12-million tranche of funding to 24 nuclear energy research projects awarded by the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI).

NERI selected the 24 projects on the basis of a peer review of 144 proposals from universities across the United States. The selected projects, to be conducted at 17 US universities in 16 states, span two- to three-year periods. Estimated funding for the awards over these periods ranges from $250,000 to $750,000, contingent on appropriations.

NERI has three primary research initiatives:

  • Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems Initiative. Gen IV, which is part of a larger global effort (earlier post), seeks to develop new reactor systems to be deployed during the next 20 years. NERI is focusing on some of the following:

    • Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP)—a: The major aim of NGNP projects is to build and demonstrate advanced high-temperature reactor technology that is able to produce both hydrogen and electricity at an economic rate. The NGNP will lead to the design, construction, and future operation of an Advanced Nuclear Reactor-Hydrogen Cogeneration Demonstration unit.

    • Supercritical Water-Cooled Reactor. Projects associated with this technology will concentrate on showing the technical feasibility of a Light Water Reactor operating above the critical pressure of water, thus producing low-cost electricity.

    • Lead-Alloy Liquid-Metal-Cooled Fast Reactor (LFR). The objective of these projects is to produce a small nuclear energy system for deploying in remote locations and in developing countries. (Similar in concept to the Toshiba 4S reactor proposed for Alaska.)

    • Gas-Cooled Fast Reactor (GFR). The objective of these projects is to develop a sustainable GFR reactor that has a closed fuel cycle, is highly efficient (the Brayton power conversion cycle), and is capable of producing electrical power and/or hydrogen.

  • Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative. Related to the Gen IV initiative, the mission of the NHI is to exhibit hydrogen production technologies utilizing nuclear energy. The goal is to demonstrate hydrogen production compatible with nuclear energy systems via scaled demonstrations, and then to couple a commercial-sized demonstration plant with a Generation IV demonstration facility by approximately 2015. Projects in this area are associated with thermochemical cycles, high-temperature electrolysis, and reactor-hydrogen production process interface.

    • Thermochemical cycles. Specific realms of investigation under this research area are thermochemical cycles for nuclear application, such as sulfur-based cycles, calcium-bromide cycles, and alternative cycles.

    • High-temperature electrolysis (HTE) (earlier post). This research area seeks to reduce the cost of manufacturing electrolytic cells and components and increase the useful lifetime of these components thereby producing hydrogen at the lowest possible cost.

    • Reactor-hydrogen production process interface. Research in this area includes process-side high-temperature heat exchanger (HX) design, implications of intermediate heat transfer loop on reactor operation (e.g., corrosion, isolation, connection), and design of support systems. NERI projects will explore laboratory-scale HX development for a variety of high-temperature hydrogen production processes, including design, short and long-term materials testing, fabrication, and system support, which includes assessing the process, infrastructure, and facilities requirements for the pilot plant and the Balance of Plant (BOP) design.

  • Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. The AFCI work is in search of the development and exhibition of technologies that may address the requirements for conversion to an environmentally, socially, politically, and economically acceptable advanced fuel cycle. Work in this area includes projects on separations, fuels, transmutation and systems analysis.

The five projects Nuclear Hydrogen projects specifically funded by the 2006 NERI awards are:

  1. Ni-Si Alloys for the S-I Reactor-Hydrogen Production Process Interface. Led by the University of Missouri-Rolla, with Idaho National Laboratory as partner. This project is to develop materials suitable for use in the sulfuric acid decomposition loop of the sulfur-iodine thermochemical cycle for nuclear hydrogen production.

  2. Microstructure Sensitive Design for Materials in Solid Oxide Electrolyzer Cell. Led by Georgia Tech Research Corporation, with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as partner. This project will focus on transport properties of porous media and solid oxide fuel cells for a solid oxide electrolyzer cells (SOEC) that will utilizing heat and electricity from a high-temperature nuclear reactor to produce hydrogen.

  3. Dynamic Simulation and Optimization of Nuclear Hydrogen Production Systems. Led by MIT. This project will develop a dynamic modeling, simulation, and optimization environment for nuclear hydrogen production systems.

  4. High Performance Electrolyzers for Hybrid Thermochemical Cycles. Led by the University of South Carolina, with Sandia National Laboratories, Savannah River National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory as partners. This project is tasked with providing the scientific basis for developing high-performance electrolyzers for use in the hybrid sulfur process and the modified calcium-bromine cycle—two thermochemical cycles identified as leading candidates for producing hydrogen from nuclear power. This project builds on the successful application of a proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer for converting H2O and SO2 to H2SO4 + H2 and HBr to Br2 + H2.

  5. Development of Efficient Flowsheet and Transient Modeling for Nuclear Heat Coupled Sulfur Iodine Cycle for Hydrogen Production. Led by Purdue University. The main goal of this project is to develop a flowsheet for the closed-loop sulfur iodine (SI) cycle for nuclear hydrogen production. This flowsheet will use current advances in acid decomposition and product gas separation to achieve high thermal efficiency.



richard schumacher

There should also be research in how to yield liquid hydrocarbons starting with H2O and CO2. Hydrogen gas can be used as one of the raw materials for that, but more direct/economical processes may be possible.

tom deplume

The most efficient way to convert CO2 and H2O into liquid hydrocarbons is to cultivate oil producing algae.


Just to clarify--oil producing algae don't generally make hydrocarbons. They make long chain fatty acid esters. For some applications (eg diesel engines), these esters, in one form or another, are about as good as petroleum-derived long chain hydrocarbons, but for other applications they aren't. And there's no plant-oil equivalent of gasoline or other shorter-chain hydrocarbon that I know of. The closest thing we have now is ethanol, which is indirectly made from CO2 and H2O via corn growth and then yeast or bacterial fermentation.

tom deplume

Algae can be run through a thermal depolymerisation or Fischer-Tropsch process to create a broad range of hydrocarbon fuels just like any biomass.
So far efforts to duplicate photosynthesis are very capital intensive and energy inefficient. There are techniques using calcium or sodium cycles for extracting atmospheric CO2 but these involve wide temperature swings in the mixtures which leads to the inefficiencies. Somehow plants are able to do this at a fairly constant ambient temperature and at low capital cost.

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