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INL announces projects around hydrogen, nuclear power

diagram of micro modular reactor

A diagram of the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. micro modular reactor. Diagram courtesy of USNC

This article was updated on November 5 to correct misstatements.

Idaho National Laboratory has announced new pursuits and recent partnerships in further pursuit of green energy.

Recently INL has joined two consortia around researching and producing “green hydrogen,” which, as researcher Tyler Westover explained, is hydrogen that is produced using either renewable energy sources (such as wind or solar), or a carbon dioxide-neutral power source, such as nuclear energy.

INL has also partnered with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation in demonstrating a Micro Modular Reactor, which will, ideally, advance nuclear plant capabilities.

photo of ben otto

Ben Otto

“It’s pretty impressive, [INL’s] capabilities, and we’re lucky to have that in Idaho,” said Ben Otto, energy associate with Idaho Conservation League. “They are also doing so many things around clean energy.”

Making ‘green’ hydrogen through electrolysis

INL is now a member of two new Department of Energy research consortia around hydrogen production, including how green hydrogen can be produced more efficiently and less expensively.

photo of tyler westover

Tyler Westover

Westover and researcher Gary Groenewold are focusing on H2NEW, which will use low and high temperatures electrolysis — essentially, a process that uses electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. A new process pioneered by Dong Ding does this through stacks of solid oxide electrolysis cells; at lower temperatures, stress is reduced.

“There is not tons of free hydrogen lying around,” said Groenewold, “[but] a lot is bound in other forms. It has great electrochemical potential.”

Through high temperature electrolysis, for example, a byproduct of the green hydrogen production will be steam, which can be used to generate electricity. The resulting energy can also be stored.

photo of Gary Groenewold

Gary Groenewold

“It’s kind of like a battery,” Groenewold said. Sometimes, there is more capacity than demand. A hope is to be able to “match storage with energy demand” to keep the enterprise economical.

A further benefit, Westover said, would be the cost of fuel cells being reduced.

“Those are projections, but they’re what we expect,” Westover said.

The end goal is to be able to produce hydrogen at a generalized cost of $2 per kilogram. Today, according to an INL press release, carbon-free hydrogen from electrolysis costs about $5 to $6/kg, assuming the currency and consistency of electricity prices.

The second of the consortia, HydroGEN 2.0, will focus more on fundamental science questions by facilitating collaborations between national laboratories, academia and industry, according to the release. The consortia are funded by the Department of Energy as part of the [email protected] vision. Current funding for [email protected] is around $104 million.

Otto is particularly excited for INL’s work in the Department of Energy’s green hydrogen consortia.

“Hydrogen is a clean fuel that can displace a lot of things,” said Otto, such as methane.

Hydrogen may also replace fossil fuels like gasoline or diesel, as researchers are looking into how to power vehicles with hydrogen, which Otto finds promising as it rapidly develops.

“There’s a lot of benefits, and really low costs on the pollution side [to hydrogen],” Otto said. “With nuclear technology, where maybe it doesn’t use fossil fuel … radioactive fuel has significant waste problems we don’t have answers for; the cons there are higher than we have for green hydrogen.”

Micro Modular Reactors ‘next step’ in nuclear energy

In a partnership with a private company, INL is working with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. to demonstrate capabilities of its Micro Modular Reactor and innovative fuel. Benefits of the technology, ideally, include deployment on power sites in remote operations that, today, use diesel or other carbon fuels; and to further innovation around combining nuclear energy and energy from renewable sources (i.e. wind, solar) or other zero-carbon energy technologies (like green hydrogen), for electricity, but, that’s further out, said Mark Mitchel, senior vice president of commercial reactors for USNC. He believes the cost of incorporating renewable energy sources will decrease over time.

photo of mark mitchel

Mark Mitchel

“There’s a lot of excitement around nuclear and renewables together; this would be one of the first working examples of that, working at very high efficiency and temperatures that are extremely useful to industry,” Mitchel said.

The Micro Modular Reactor is a commercial plant being added at INL. It is like a normal pressure vessel, Mitchel described, with a few special components inside; some, for example, transfer heat into molten salt, decoupleable storage for future use, like a battery.

This advanced reactor, unlike current large nuclear power plants, does not need water to cool itself; instead, it uses gas, like helium.

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Corey McDaniel

“It’s very exciting to actually demonstrate those concepts,” said Corey McDaniel, director of industry engagement for INL. “It’s the next step that needs to be taken before nuclear energy systems [are] more widely used with integrated energy systems.”

Fuel for the Micro Modular Reactor is based on TRISO fuel, which is meltdown-proof, according to a press release, with smaller pellets and different coverage materials.

“Designs like this eliminate a lot of residual risk people think about when they think about nuclear power,” Mitchel said. Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., based in Seattle, has been around since 2011, and has been showcasing its fuel since 2015.

Other benefits of small and micro modular reactors are lower cost to build (being factory-built), being transportable (such as to remote areas globally) and being scalable, according to information provided by INL; for example, a facility can be designed to have multiple mini reactors, but not all have to be built at once, or more can be added if demand increases.

INL could be a possible customer if the Micro Modular Reactor works well, McDaniel said.

The current goal is to have the micro modular reactor built on INL’s facilities by 2025 to 2026. Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. is awaiting possible and partial funding from the Department of Energy in the form of an Advanced Reactor Demonstration Award, which could include cost sharing. The DOE has set aside $30 million for qualifying projects, according to a press release, which are anticipated to be awarded around December.

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