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Penn State Leading DOE Consortium Focused on Nuclear Thermochemical Production of Hydrogen

The consortium research will develop technologies to improve the performance of a number of alternative cycles for the thermochemical production of hydrogen. Click to enlarge. Source: NREL

Under a $2.4 million research grant designated from the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), Penn State is leading a consortium in a three-year project to establish the most efficient technologies for hydrogen production that are compatible with nuclear-generated heat sources.

One of the scopes of NERI is to develop a number of thermochemical cycles for producing hydrogen on a commercial scale through advanced nuclear energy systems. In a thermochemical cycle water and heat are the input, hydrogen and oxygen are the only products, and all other chemicals are recycled.

Researchers in the project—Advanced Electrochemical Technologies for Hydrogen Production by Alternative Thermochemical Cycles—will investigate a number of prospective thermochemical cycles and key reactions via experimental work and process simulation to evaluate their efficiency and viability for future sustainable energy infrastructure. Other members of the consortium include Argonne National Laboratory, University of South Carolina and Tulane University.

There are several promising alternative thermochemical cycles merit further research, according to the team: three copper-chloride (Cu-Cl) reactions; three calcium-bromide (Ca-Br) reactions; and two active alloy metal reactions. Potential benefits of these cycles include medium temperature (≤600°C) operation, high efficiency, simple unit operations, and relatively simple separations.

The Penn State-led project concerns the development of advanced electro-chemical technologies, which will lead to overall improvement in cycle performance. The work will focus on the following tasks:

  • Development of membranes, electrocatalysts, electrode materials, and membrane electrode assemblies (MEA) for all of the cycles;

  • Separation of reaction products;

  • Identification and modeling of species involved in the electrochemical processes; and

  • Flowsheet analyses to guide the experimental program towards higher efficiency and lower cost processes.

Material demands for these alternative cycles are expected to be less severe than at the temperature required for the baseline sulfur cycle (i.e., 825°C). While this project is primarily concerned with alternative thermochemical cycles, the technologies developed will be applicable to Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) electrolyzers and other hydrogen production processes.

Research conducted by four Consortium members in many aspects will rely on mutual expertise in particular areas. Joint data analysis and selection of prospective directions and systems will be made at review meetings. It is also anticipated that consortium activities will be a part of the International Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (INERI), and a strong collaboration with Atomic Energy Canada, Ltd. and a number of Canadian universities will be developed.

On 30 August 2007, DOE announced the selection of 11 university-led teams to conduct state-of-the-art research on nuclear energy with a total funding amount of $30.7 million, one of which is the Penn State project.




To proclaim hydrogen a viable future fuel is to be a victim of fraud. There are only a few truly 'mad sciences'. Nuclear power is one of them. There will never be enough power to supply modern mechanized society's glutony and vile waste. Be thankful that some people are willing to buck the system and call a spade a spade.

Max Reid

Known method of Hydrogen production is thru Electrolysis where Electricity is the fuel source, now Thermochemical seems to be the second.

I have read about processes using both Electricity & Heat to produce Hydrogen which is more efficient.

Anyway, I guess the 3 fundamental sources of energy are Light, Heat and Electricity, so why not we use these sources directly instead of using them to produce Hydrogen.


It sounds like you have given up. Taking a ludite stance rules out even renewable energy sources. I have to wonder why (OR HOW) you are torturing yourself by reading this forum.


We do not have a hydrogen infrastructure.
We do have an electricity and a liquid hydrocarbon infrastructure.
H2 is a difficult fuel to store and transport, and fuel cells are extremely expensive and not robust.
H2 ICEs are not much better than BEV from natural gas.

Why not go to Lithium in PHEv or BEVs ?
Seems much simpler - you can get the electricity from any source you like (including Nukes) but also including wind, PV wave, whatever.
I just don't "get" hydrogen.
It should be possible to build a reasonable grid with Nukes, renewable and gas - the gas needed to balance the variability of renewables.
If you don't use Nukes, you will end up with coal, which none wants.
Liquid fuels are too valuable for use as anything but transportation (as we ramp up to more electric vehicles) - and may be needed for aircraft for the foreseeable future.
Or else synthesize some liquid fuel containing carbon and hydrogen such as methanol. As long as the carbon cycle is closed, there is no problem.


Take a guess which is more efficient: converting heat into hydrogen, then compressing/liquefying that hydrogen, powering a fuel cell or converting that heat into electricity, transporting it over the grid and charging/discharging a li-ion battery? The latter also has more existing infrastructure.


This is BS raised to the second power. You could reasonable argue for using nuclear to power EVs. But using hydrogen as an excuse for nuclear is lame.

Robert Merkel

You guys aren't considering that there is applications where batteries just don't cut it - long-haul trucks (or for that matter long-haul rail; there are plenty of places where electrification of rail lines isn't practical), farm machinery, and the like.

As I understand it, the efficiency of hydrogen storage tanks goes up as the scale goes up, to the point where just running a combustion engine off hydrogen is practical if the hydrogen is cheap enough.

Furthermore, thermal energy from nuclear power stations is really cheap, so even if the process is less efficient than generating electricity and sending it over the grid, it may still be cheap enough for these more demanding applications.


now theres an Idea ,A bathtub full of water could run al the worlds needs for * years?.
I missed that day at school but i had a note.
There are certain unavoidable facts that affect my view 1: The conensus re fossil fuels converges at the xing point where the time consuming absorbtion and sequestion over eons is behind us. The new world paradim is for a zero fossil fuel economy.
2:Nuclear fission is not anywhere near zero fossil (carbon) emmision while the mining, processing transport, conversion across to EEnergy, then "safe storage, I' going to wear my comma key out !
Not to to mention the evolutionary problems of containment, arms production control of economies ,ego's accidents OOP's.

Fusion: Well the projected time lines on fusion are dependant on the succes of the next three research reactors of supercollider pedigree. I dont like to stuff my head with predictive dates so suffice to say a real world step in the right direction here is a way off yet.
Realistically I'm not holding my breath and many proofs and technological obstacles are all we should expect for quite some time.


Absolutely, for long range, you can use diesel as we do now, in PHEV(D) or Phev(h) vehicles.
Even if the storage scales, you still have to transport and distribute it.
It (H2) may well find niches, and these may expand as time goes on, but let's find one niche and start there.

Could you dissolve H2 in a liquid fuel to increase its power density ? (Do they do this already)

Herm Perez

what are the issues transporting hydrogen by pipeline?, at normal pressure..I know the energy density is low but if the pipe is big enough..

and I think it can be pressurized and stored locally at the plant, for burning later on in the gas turbines during peak demand.. if it can compete with the cost of NG


"what are the issues transporting hydrogen by pipeline?"

you can't use the same pipes used for natural gas because of embrittlement

Lou Grinzo

I don't mean to sound like I'm on Joe Romm's pay roll (I'm not), but I can't recommend his book The Hype About Hydrogen strongly enough. He makes an excellent case for hydrogen fuel cells possibly having a serious role in non-mobile scenarios (combined heat and power generation in buildings, for example), but simply facing far too many obstacles for vehicular use.


Thermal efficiency of coal power plant is slightly over 30%, for nuclear plant it is lower than 30%. There is huge amount of waste heat available, and if only ¼ of it will be used to produce hydrogen US can say goodbye to ME oil (to say at least).

Hydrogen gas is worst energy carrier and fuel possible, but it could be used to produce ammonia fertilizers, hydrocrack heavy crude, coal, oil shale, oil sand, biomass, refuse into liquid fuel, and thousand other industrial applications reducing HC fuel demand and even creating some.

Harvey D

Waste heat seems to limit most power plants efficiency (except co-generation type) to about 30-40%.

Could the waste heat be used to increase the efficiency of colocated or nearby agrofuel plants?

Max Reid

Seems in Solar Thermal Power Plant, the heat produced during the day is saved to generate power at night.

Is there anyway, this waste heat in nuclear power plant be used for other applications like home heating.

Is it theoritically possible to store heat in a device to power vehicles ?.


Well its certainly big, we've all seen the fallout.
Could be a problem there with martyer's,
Hydrogen is the excuse for big nuclear, Like big tummies as the excuse for excessive consumption.
On so many levels it just doesn't add up.


The other problem being that the ONLY way you are going to get any range out of hydrogen is with cryogenic liquid freezing. (Getting it down to 20Kelvin, just barely above absolute zero. Aka -423°F)

This makes it considerably dirtier to drive a hydrogen sedan on this than it is to drive an 8 wheeler semi on diesel.

So no, hydrogen isn't going to be an option for "long haul".

Perhaps the best option for long haul is going to be a diesel-electric-hybrid. And keeping with that, freight trains have been diesel-electric-hybrids since the 1930s.

Roger Pham

Achieving thermo-chemical or thermo-electro-chemical hydrolysis of water at temps below 600 C is a breakthrough. This means that waste heat from a gas turbine power plant can be used in the process, beside thermonuclear energy, hence greatly improve the energy efficiency of the process.

In the future, H2 will likely be stored adsorbed into a matrix at reasonable pressure and at weight likely above 14% H2 gravimetrically. This will mean light-weight and compact enough for large capacity storage and tranportation on par with petroleum. Hydrogen is the most efficient and easiest synthetic fuel that can be made from renewable energy and nuclear energy.

Electricity is a form of energy that best be used NOW, as it is being generated. It is not cost-effective nor practical to store electricity in vast quantity on a seasonal basis. Even excess nuclear energy produced in the summer will need to be stored in the form of hydrogen, methane, or ammonia, etc. for used in the winter. It is very costly and it takes a long time to build a nuclear plant, so we cannot build excess nuclear plants for winter use and lay the plants idle in the summer when excess solar energy will be available! Plus, transmitting the nuclear's heat hundreds of miles away to be used for home heating in the form of electricity is only 30% efficient. Using H2 as a medium, H2 can be generated at 50% efficiency or higher, to be transported via dedicated H2 pipeline for hundreds of miles at very little loss.

Stan Peterson

To make Hydrogen efficiently you must use heat to get part of the way to dissociating hydrogen to whatever it has been chemically attached. The temperatures described here as "low as 600 degrees" are beyond most standard boiler temperatures and the temperatures of the working heats of most current nuclear plants. Heat from Second and Third generation plants and the coming GEN III+ nuclear fission the operating temperatures are significantly lower, too low, to serve the needs of this hydrogen approach.

It is not only that you need large amounts of Heat; you need that Heat at high temperature for efficient hydrogen generation. The heat is available; the temperatures are NOT.

To operate nuclear fission as a source of heat for these thermo-chemical Hydrogen makers, or efficient electrolysis from water, requires the use of higher operating temperature GEN IV fast nuclear plants which don't exist, and are not slated even for design into the 2020s.

The genius of the present nuclear fission revival, is that the GEN III+ plant designs, operating as advanced, passive PWRs or BWRs, do not require these high temperatures. Nor the safety problems attendant with handling molten salts, or liquid metals such as liquid lead or dangerous liquid sodium, as do proposed fast breeder GEN IV plants would do.

While I heartily recommend the revival of ONE MORE GENERATION of fission nukes, I and many others would object about then going forward to invest billions of dollars to design a GEN IV generation of dangerous fast breeders. This ONE MORE GENERATION of fission nukes is acceptable for a single reason. The reason is to bridge the gap for the interim period between now and the coming clean Fusion era, starting in the 2030s.

The investment necessary for the GEN IV fission fast breeders would compete with the money needed for the first generation of Fusion power plants. We would chose to invest in clean inexhaustible Fusion technologies instead. Without a follow on generation of fission nukes, over time would allow the phase out of all fission nuclear plants at the end of the life expectancy of this ONE LAST GENERATION, in the 2060s.

Furthermore, the Yucca Mountain/Death Valley repository, has enough capacity to store ALL the high level waste from current and this ONE LAST GENERATION of Fission Nukes, with perhaps help from a few "actinide burners" to render the life expectancy of the high level waste to but a few hundred years rather than thousands of years.

The GEN III+ plants are up to three orders of magnitude safer than currently running safe Nuclear plants; and resemble them in using water as the medium of heat extraction and secondary steam generation. These new plants have been designed, and the investment for them has ALREADY been made. Tens of billions of R&D dollars have been made to design these GEN III+ generation. Together with the reform of the licensing and operating laws, the Utilities are buying them like hot cakes. Thirty two plants are seeking licenses for construction and operation of these new plants, up from ZERO in less than two years in the USA. This will double the percentage of nuclear power generation,provide the electricity for the electrified auto fleets, and allow the retirement of most of the oldest and dirtiest remaining coal power plants, reducing emissions even more. (Coincidently meeting all the requirements of Kyoto and Its follow on, and then some, by this single action alone.)

In summary this hydrogen economy is a cull de sac, which we should not seek. Electrification of Ground Transport is where economics and technology is taking us and this is the course we should follow and not fight it. Within a decade Petroleum demand will collapse by greater than 70% with the removal of much hydrocarbon demand for auto and light trucks.

With it, the worries about scarcity and availability and causes for war will diminish. At much lower demand, there are sufficient oil supplies for hundreds of years, to make medicines, lubricants and polymers, and for the needs of aviation and some residual other transport. Or they can be met by bio sources.

Happy Thanksgiving, Stan. You are to be commended for finally making it through a post with intelligence and no crazy ranting. More like that, please.


==It is not cost-effective nor practical to store electricity in vast quantity on a seasonal basis.==

So you're saying there's no more economical and reliable to store electricity than hydrogen?

And that forfeiting 1/2 of your electricity in making hydrogen, and then forfeiting another 3/4ths of that energy in hydrogen use, losing a net total of 12.5% of your original energy remaining is superior to everything else?

You almost made me think you were being serious.
Good joke :P



You are right about temperature, that’s why I said about utilization of ¼ of waste heat.

However, there are couple of emerging technologies which could much more effectively use low-parameter refuse heat to super-heat steam than produce electricity.

One of such technologies is to use low boiling point liquid like propane to adiabatically compress (and hence superheat) low-quality steam.

Hydrogen is extremely valuable commodity. If it could be produced by utilization of waste heat from nuclear plants, or dedicated nuclear reactors, or nuclear plants off-peak with small addition of energy, it could vastly improve domestic energy balance.

Max Reid

Stan Peterson

Very sensible notes, you missed one important technology, the PBMR (Pebble Bed Modular Reactor) which is supposed to operate 99 % of the time.

Can you give some update on it.

I fully agree with you that billion were invested in Gen-III+ Reactors and time to use it.

Just 2 more comments.
Its high time for countries like Russia, Saudi, Mexico to convert all their Oil fired power plants to other fuels, so that precious Crude Oil can be used for Transport.

We dont need a plugin hybrid vehicle that has 40 or 60 or 100 mile range. If you drive 10 miles / day on electricity for 300 days / year
then 10 miles * 300 days = 3000 miles / year which is 25 % of the driving range for a average vehicle.

So a Car/SUV with 10 mile range battery is good enough.
Similarly the Buses and Trucks which go 300 - 400 miles /day can have battery just for 100 mile range.

This will move reduce 1/4 of out Crude Oil needs with lesser investment in Batteries. Ofcourse nuclear electricity can help us power these vehicles.

richard schumacher

Hydrogen and atmospheric CO2 can be used to make artificial liquid hydrocarbon fuels for vehicles. These would be carbon neutral and are compatible with existing infrastucture and vehicles, thus avoiding all the problems of using hydrogen as a fuel.

Anyone concerned about plutonium in nuclear fission fuel cycles should be pushing their government to develop thorium fuelled reactors ASAP. Thorium is much more common than uranium, and it and its wastes cannot be weaponized.

Rafael Seidl

Every energy-intensive human activity has its environmental downside, including solar, wind and hydro power. However, nuclear is especially pernicious in that there is no *operational* permanent repository for the radioactive waste it produces, anywhere in the world. The above article simply underscores who is really behind the push for the "hydrogen economy": the US nuclear lobby.

Moreover, the example of Iran shows just how small the difference between civilian and military applications of nuclear technology is. North Korea's president Kim Il Sung was personally in charge of kidnapping Japanese citizens and other forms of state terrorism while his father was still alive. Pakistan's ruler Zia ul-Haq was an Islamic fundamentalist who supported the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with massive financial support from the US and Saudi Arabia. Both North Korea and Pakistan have either weapons-grade nuclear material or actual weapons. Both have covertly traded restricted military technology with third parties such as Libya and Iran. And now Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state in its own right.

Pebble bed reactors would dramatically reduce the risk of military applications. The flip side is their waste is extremely hard to reprocess. Primary uranium ore is already expensive and is expected to run out in a few short decades. Moreover, operations in Germany showed that the spherical pebbles can get wedged in the silo outflow. Clearing the blockage by force led to the destruction of a pellet and exposed staff to high levels of radiation.

Nuclear power is simply more trouble than it's worth, except in the form of geothermal power in selected locations (e.g. Iceland, New Zealand).

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