In the 1970s–1980s, the USSR was developing airplanes and rockets using hydrogen fuel. Later on, this program was curtailed, but progress in the automobile industry triggered a new surge of interest in the hydrogen economy. Nikolay Ponomarev-Stepnoy, the RAS Academician, the Consultant of the General Director of JSC “Afrikantov OKBM” believes that it is ROSATOM that may be the leader of the hydrogen renaissance.
— Which new strategic scientific areas do you think are promising and first-priority for the industry, and upon which of them is it for ROSATOM to focus its scientific competences and financial resources in the nearest 10 years?
— I believe that as of today, the development of the nuclear hydrogen economy is one of the most promising areas that ROSATOM should get involved in. In the perspective, the scales of this sector are comparable in volumes to the nuclear electricity generation.
As it is well known, nuclear energy does not pertain to the renewable resource category. However, the possibility of breeding nuclear fuel using the raw material, the amounts of which by many times exceed the input fuel resource, transfer nuclear energy to the category of practically renewable and inexhaustible energy sources. This statement is supported by a possibility of hydrogen production from water using high-temperature nuclear reactors, and hydrogen is an energy key to production processes, transport and utility sector. The use of nuclear energy and hydrogen coincide in terms of basic consumer requirements — unlimited resources and environmental cleanliness.
“I THINK HYDROGEN MUST BE A NEW KEY PRODUCT OF ROSATOM. HYDROGEN AND ITS DERIVATIVES ARE ASKED-FOR GOODS AT THE INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL MARKETS. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE LINE OF HYDROGEN PRODUCTS MUST BE BASED UPON THE RUSSIAN NEW-GENERATION NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THE HTGR TECHNOLOGY”.
— It’s not the first time that hydrogen economy is looked at by the nuclear industry people. What’s so special about the present stage? And are there any grounds for the hydrogen renaissance?
— The new surge of interest in the large-scale nuclear hydrogen economy is associated with the development of the automobile industry based on hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen as fuel for motor vehicles has many advantages. It’s been a long time that hydrogen economy is evolving and hydrogen-fueled engines are being developed. In our country, the first hydrogen-fueled automobile engine was started up in besieged Leningrad in 1942. In the 1980s, Tupolev Aviation Science and Technology Complex developed a flying laboratory based upon the TU-154V airplane, and it used liquid hydrogen as fuel. Then, TU-155 was developed, the world’s first airplane that used cryogenic fuel — liquid hydrogen and liquefied natural gas.
At the beginning of this century, many leading countries of the world formed the International Partnership for Hydrogen Economy. Now, Japanese and Korean automotive industry giants have developed a lineup of cars with hydrogen-fueled engines and are actively promoting their products at the market. This is caused mostly by the intention to reduce the effect to the climate that is produced by emissions of carbon fuel combustion products to the atmosphere. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe called upon his country to refuse oil and gas. In particular, by 2020 around 40 thousand cars and buses with hydrogen cells will have to be on the roads of Japan. There are plans to develop a ramified network of hydrogen filling stations. The implementation requires that large-scale hydrogen production be ensured.
It becomes clear even on the example of only Japan that the renaissance of hydrogen economy technologies is evident. I can also say that it is not only Japan but also the USA, Germany and Canada have developed and operate pilot hydrogen filling stations.
I will add yet another thing. Today, the world’s consumption of hydrogen is around 75 million tons. The largest consumers — up to 90% of the entire volume — are the chemical and oil refining industries. Should the production, transportation and storage processes be developed on a large scale, hydrogen might be used to solve the problems in the big-sized power industry. Among them, we should single out energy accumulation in power systems with an irregular load curve, especially for nuclear power stations, power supply to local consumers and long-distance heat supply. The estimated world’s demand for hydrogen in the 21st century: 2050 — 370 million tons, 2100 — 800 million tons.
— Which major advantages and disadvantages in the hydrogen area could you indicate?
— We could single out a few hydrogen features that determine the consumers’ interest in it. First, it is one of the most environmentally clean energy carriers that we know. Along with that, hydrogen shows high efficiency of conversion to electricity in fuel cells — up to 90% — a possibility of energy accumulation, long-distance and local delivery to the consumer. It is hydrogen-oxygen rocket engines that provide the highest specific thrust. And if used in nuclear rocket engines, hydrogen will increase the specific thrust twice or more compared to the today’s liquid-propellant rocket engines. We showed it as far back as in the 1970s.
Second, hydrogen as a chemical agent is in demand for the chemical and food industries, oil refining, metallurgy and other industrial productions. Third, we can speak with confidence about unlimited raw material resources for hydrogen production, I mean hydrocarbons and water.
As for disadvantages, hydrogen is highly explosive. However, I’m going to give you this example of test results. If a car with a gasoline engine gets into an accident, the flame covers the entire vehicle and burns for a long time; if a car with a hydrogen-fueled engine gets into an accident, the volatile hydrogen burns above the vehicle as a torch. With all safety requirements met, hydrogen is not more dangerous than any other energy carrier.
— Could hydrogen fuel cells be a serious alternative to internal combustion engines and electric motors? What is their advantage?
Today, the fuel cells based on hydrogen are attracting a lot of attention of researchers, designers, the industry and investors. What is fuel cells based on hydrogen? They are electrochemical generators, that is, the type of technologies using the hydrogen oxidation reaction in an electrochemical process, which generates electricity, heat and water. The US and Russian space programs have been using electrochemical generators for decades. Fuel cells for drives of automobiles and buses are successfully being developed for the next generation of vehicles for various applications and for autonomous power supply systems, including those for households. Solid polymer fuel cells, SPFCs, according to the engineering level, are now at the commercialization threshold. However, their high cost on the order of $104 per kilowatt is considerably holding this process back. Many companies are predicting the drop in prices of the SPFC power systems by an order of magnitude or more if these systems are mass-produced. For the massive use of SPFCs in the motor vehicles, the SPFC cost should reduce to $50–100 per kilowatt. I’m sure that in the nearest future, as a result of more stringent emission standards, higher gasoline costs and lower prices of fuel cells, the market conditions will change in favor of SPFC automobiles and SPFC autonomous power plants with the power of 100–300 kW.
— In your opinion, which hydrogen production method is the most efficient one and why?
— Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe. However, in the nature, hydrogen is in the bound state with other elements, like oxygen in water, carbon in methane and other organic compounds. To produce hydrogen, energy must be spent to cut chemical bonds in hydrocarbons or water and to isolate the hydrogen from the reaction mixture. A lot of processes have been developed for water decomposition into the component elements. When heated up to above 2,500 °C, water decomposes into hydrogen and oxygen — this is direct thermolysis. The problem here is that hydrogen-oxygen recombination should be prevented, and the required components should be isolated.
Currently in the world, the major part of hydrogen produced on an industrial scale is from steam methane reforming, SMR. However, in order to implement an endothermal process for steam reforming of natural gas, about a half of source gas is burnt — the combustion product emissions have a negative effect upon the environment.
The hydrogen produced by this method is used as an agent for oil processing and to produce ammonia, nitrogen fertilizers, ethylene, propylene and products based on them, as well as for the rocket technology. Steam and thermal energy at the temperature of 750–850 °C are required to separate hydrogen from the carbon basis in methane, which happens in chemical steam reformers on catalytic surfaces. The first stage in the SMR process splits methane and water steam into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. After that, at the second stage, the “shift reaction” turns the carbon monoxide and water into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. This reaction takes place at the temperature of 200–250 °C.
In the 1970s, our country accomplished the designs of safe high-temperature helium cooled reactors, HTGRs, nuclear power-and-process stations for the chemical industry and the ferrous metallurgy, and provided the required scientific-and-technical validations and experimental verifications for them.
The experience in the development of the hydrogen-fueled nuclear rocket engines was used for the development of HTGR designs. The experimental high-temperature reactors and the demonstration rocket engines that our country developed for these purposes showed their operability with the hydrogen heated up to the record temperature of 3,000 K.
The high temperature helium cooled reactors are a new type of environmentally clean multipurpose nuclear energy sources. Their unique properties — a capability of generating heat at 1,000 °C and high safety level — determine wide possibilities in applications for highly efficient electricity generation in a gas-turbine cycle to supply high-temperature heat and electricity to hydrogen production processes, water desalination processes, production processes in the chemical, petroleum-processing, metallurgic and other industries.
Russia has developed HTGR designs for electricity generation, for power-and-process applications, for small- and medium-sized nuclear power plants. Experimental facilities have been created, the key technologies like the reactor technology, the ceramic fuel technology, the energy conversion system technology, the equipment and structural material technologies have been developed and experimentally tested. With participation of Rosenergoatom, the modular reactor designs have been developed that have unique safety features for power-and-process applications: MGR-T to produce hydrogen and electricity (the thermal power of the unit is 600 MWt) and MGR-MVS to produce the methane-hydrogen mixture (the thermal power of the unit is 250 MWt).
— In your opinion, what is the way to build the commercialization strategy for the hydrogen area in the nuclear industry?
I think hydrogen must be a new key product of ROSATOM. Hydrogen and its derivatives are asked-for goods at the internal and external markets. The development of the line of hydrogen products must be based upon the Russian new-generation nuclear technologies like the HTGR technology.
Based upon the experience gained in our country, a nuclear chemical-engineering cluster, NCEC, should be developed and built to process natural gas into hydrogen using modular high-temperature helium-cooled reactors. This project, if implemented, will open a new product line for pure hydrogen production. A high-tech product with a high added value will be supplied to the external market. Such project of large-scale, environmentally clean hydrogen production from natural gas is of interest to foreign partners and may be developed with them as a joint project. Japan may be one of the most interested partners on condition that such cluster is placed on the advanced development territory on the Far East coast of Russia, or on Sakhalin, or on the Kuril Islands. Natural gas will be supplied via pipelines from the deposits located on the mainland or on Sakhalin.
The NCEC with modular helium reactors may be used to produce highly efficient hydrogenous gaseous and liquid energy carriers like pure hydrogen, methane-hydrogen mixture, liquid fuel, as well as chemical products for various applications — ammonia, ethylene, propylene and products based on them, including fertilizers for agriculture.
In the Far East, such cluster will create the conditions for the development of the power-intensive industry, stimulate an inflow of highly skilled professionals, external and internal investors, while opening new opportunities for the foreign business. ROSATOM will diversify its business with the hydrogen project.
Could this area aspire to a status of the national project that doesn’t only include scientific cooperation in the industry but also joins competences of RAS institutions, Kurchatov Institute and nuclear research institutes?
This is a very correct question. In this project, it is impossible to do without the large-scale cooperation of the lead Russian scientific institutes, research and production centers. I believe that the national program for the development of the large-scale nuclear power industry must incorporate the nuclear hydrogen economy. Its development will ensure that the new key product, hydrogen, will be manufactured, which solves the problem of introducing the nuclear energy into production processes of the metallurgic, chemical, oil and other industries, and it will provide environmentally clean fuel for the transport. The development of the line of hydrogen products must be based upon the Russian new-generation nuclear technologies. Therefore, it is also necessary to open an investment project “Nuclear Chemical-Engineering Cluster with Modular Helium-Cooled Reactors to Produce Hydrogen from Natural Gas”. This project must be based upon introducing into the nuclear power industry HTGRs and technologies for hydrocarbon conversion to hydrogen and hydrogen derivatives without CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. The hydrogen topics are indispensable and profitable for ROSATOM in terms of a number of parameters, which I mentioned above. We must not lose the chance to be at the head of the world’s renaissance in the nuclear hydrogen economy.