High-temperature electrolysis of hydrogen requires process heat.
NuScale's reactor was competitive with solar electrolysis at the right scale.
After getting bodied in the news cycle for a few months, small modular nuclear startup NuScale Power has an additional potential path to the diverse energy market. In a new evaluation run by the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory, NuScale’s nuclear module performed effective catalysis for hydrogen.
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The company reports:
The updated analysis found that with the 25 percent increase in power output of a [NuScale Power Module™ (NPM)], one 250 MWt NuScale module is capable of producing 2,053 kg/hour of hydrogen, or nearly 50 metric tons per day, an increase from 1,667 kg/hour of hydrogen or 40 metric tons per day for a 200 MWt NuScale module.
NuScale says these numbers mean that correctly deployed nuclear modules could compete with existing solutions like solar hydrogen plants, helping to eliminate the need for fossil fuel hydrogen.
For skeptics, this is a combination of two kinds of snake oil. But are those criticisms valid? It's complicated.
Tiny nuclear is on the rise around the world, but NuScale has drawn the most attention for both good and bad reasons. The company's product is the closest to hitting the market because it uses a lot of pretty traditional nuclear technology, which critics say makes it too much like what came before. Those detractors are also mad that NuScale has drawn a huge amount of funding and government support.
Hydrogen is a hypothetically renewable energy source that’s currently mired in the fossil fuel supply chain. That’s because almost no “free” (in the literal, chemical sense) hydrogen exists in nature—it all has to be shaken loose from water, for example, or hydrocarbons.
This has led critics to say hydrogen is basically a fossil fuel for now, and they’re not wrong. But innovators are crowding into the hydrogen space to try to make easier, cleaner, more plentiful hydrogen that will cost less for consumers and the planet.
Back to NuScale’s hydrogen evaluation—how do these two technologies meet? One of the key ways the nuclear industry says they’re essential to our energy future is in something called process heat, used for things like home HVAC and forging and smelting. Now, process heat from NuScale’s module is heating water and then zapping the hydrogen out of the superheated steam.
In NuScale’s release about the evaluation, the company touts the flexibility it says its module brings. This has been a big selling point for tiny nuclear across the board, along with improved containment and safety outcomes, because of advanced design in these reactor units.
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But what’s the real use case for using part of a small reactor’s output to make hydrogen? Couldn’t traditional, large nuclear plants do the same things?
Well, sure, but NuScale has never claimed to improve over the best markets for traditional, large, nuclear fission power plants. In big cities or populated areas, that could still be the best option, combined with growing renewables like solar, wind, and hydro. Small, remote locations, however, could be keen to have hydrogen for refueling, but lack access to a large nuclear infrastructure.
In the near future, as we phase out fossil fuels around the world, having more options is almost always a good idea.
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