Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hydrogen's energy opportunity

The State | 10/11/2005 | Hydrogen�s energy opportunity

By EDGAR BERKEY

Guest columnist


Higher gasoline prices, sporadic fuel shortages and growing uncertainty over the stability of supplies are clouding our nation’s energy and security picture. It is more critical than ever to speed development of an alternative energy source that is under our control. Fortunately, there is such a source — hydrogen.

It can be extracted from hydrogen-rich compounds, such as water, using a variety of production methods. Hydrogen production is of great importance to South Carolina because of the research underway at the Savannah River National Laboratory and the state’s research universities. Because of its research capabilities related to producing hydrogen using advanced nuclear technologies, the state could assume a leadership role as the hydrogen economy evolves.

Several years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy began an ambitious, long-term research program whose outcome could logically lead to a hydrogen economy in this country — that is, an economy where hydrogen is the primary source of energy for most of our transportation, industrial, commercial and residential needs. The shift to hydrogen for everyday use would have many benefits — reducing our dependence on imported oil, limiting air pollution and lowering global warming emissions, especially if nuclear power were used to produce the large quantities of hydrogen required. Using hydrogen for energy produces no air pollutants or global warming agents — only water vapor — and we do not need to rely on other countries for supplies.

The comprehensive energy legislation recently signed by President Bush provides $100 million to demonstrate the production of hydrogen at two existing nuclear power plants. We must do what is necessary to seize this opportunity as a nation.

The demonstration program has a high chance to succeed. Using electric power to extract hydrogen from water, then using that hydrogen to replace supplies now produced from high-cost natural gas, is straightforward. As the infrastructure for producing, distributing and using hydrogen grows — and cars running on hydrogen fuel begin to appear in large numbers — this domestically produced fuel will also be available to power homes, offices, factories and our transportation systems.

An important first step is to demonstrate large-scale hydrogen production. This can be done with a proven process that uses electrolyzers plugged into a nuclear power plant to separate hydrogen from water — for example, during overnight periods when other demands for power are low.

Of course, other power sources could also be used to produce hydrogen from water — solar plants, wind turbines or coal-fired power plants. However, solar and wind power are best suited for smaller-scale applications, and it is unlikely they will ever be able to produce the enormous amounts of hydrogen required. And unless carbon dioxide emissions can be captured and stored in some way, coal plants would also be problematic. By contrast, nuclear plants emit no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases and can reliably produce the amount of hydrogen needed at a competitive cost.

Producing hydrogen at existing nuclear plants is just one facet of the federal program. The energy legislation also supports development of advanced nuclear reactors that can generate both electricity and hydrogen more efficiently than current processes using natural gas. In addition, advanced hydrogen production technologies driven by nuclear power are being developed at several national laboratories, including the Savannah River National Laboratory.

Nuclear power can meet the challenge of a future hydrogen economy in the United States and give us control of our energy. Electricity production from operating nuclear plants has grown steadily for the past 15 years, but more nuclear plants will be needed to meet projected growth in future power demand — as well as the added need for hydrogen. Next-generation nuclear plants will use standardized, inherently safe designs, together with the advanced technologies being developed.

Establishing a hydrogen economy in the United States is a long-term proposition. Demonstrating the use of existing nuclear plants to produce hydrogen and developing more efficient nuclear methods to produce hydrogen are important steps forward. For their part, utilities also need to take advantage of the loan guarantees and other financial incentives now available for the first few new nuclear plants.

The painful aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the run-up in gasoline prices are grim reminders that now is the time for our nation to accelerate the process of controlling our energy future. That is the real promise of a hydrogen economy based on nuclear power.

Dr. Berkey is vice president of research and design and chief quality officer of Concurrent Technologies Corp. He is a former member of the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Advisory Board and recently completed a study of South Carolina’s future hydrogen economy.

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