WASHINGTON — Researchers at a government nuclear laboratory and a ceramics company in Salt Lake City say they have found a way to produce pure hydrogen with far less energy than other methods, raising the possibility of using nuclear power to indirectly wean the transportation system from its dependence on oil.
The development would move the country closer to the Energy Department’s stated goal of a “hydrogen economy,” in which hydrogen would be created through a variety of means and would be consumed by devices called fuel cells to make electricity to run cars and for other purposes.
Experts cite three big obstacles to a hydrogen economy: manufacturing hydrogen cleanly and at low cost, finding a way to ship it and store it, and reducing the high price of fuel cells.
“This is a breakthrough in the first part,” said J. Stephen Herring, a consulting engineer at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which plans to announce the development Monday with Cerametec Inc. of Salt Lake City.
The developers also said the hydrogen could be used by oil companies to stretch oil supplies even without solving the fuel cell and transportation problems.
Herring said the work showed the “highest-known production rate of hydrogen by high-temperature electrolysis.”
But the plan requires the building of a new kind of nuclear reactor, at a time when the United States is not even building conventional reactors. And the cost estimates are uncertain.
The heart of the plan is an improvement on the most efficient way to extract hydrogen, which is to run electric current through water, splitting molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, called electrolysis.
The new method involves running electricity through water that has a high temperature. As the water molecule breaks up, a ceramic sieve separates the oxygen from the hydrogen.
The goal is to create a reactor that could produce about 300 megawatts of electricity for the grid, enough to run about 300,000 window air conditioners or produce about 2.5 kilos of hydrogen per second. When burned, a kilo of hydrogen has about the same energy as a gallon of regular gasoline. But fuel cells, which work without burning, get about twice as much work out of each unit of fuel. So if used in automotive fuel cells, the reactor might replace more than 400,000 gallons of gasoline per day.
Another problem is that the United States has no infrastructure for shipping large volumes of hydrogen. Currently, most hydrogen is produced at the point it is used, mostly in oil refineries.