December 02, 2004
High Temperature Ceramic Hydrogen Generation Process Announced

A company called Cerametec of Salt Lake City Utah and the US Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environment Laboratory have announced a new technique that boosts the efficiency of conversion of energy into hydrogen.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Ceramatec, Inc. of Salt Lake City are reporting a significant development in their efforts to help the nation advance toward a clean hydrogen economy.

Laboratory teams have announced they’ve achieved a major advancement in the production of hydrogen from water using high-temperature electrolysis. Instead of conventional electrolysis, which uses only electric current to separate hydrogen from water, high-temperature electrolysis enhances the efficiency of the process by adding substantial external heat – such as high-temperature steam from an advanced nuclear reactor system. Such a high-temperature system has the potential to achieve overall conversion efficiencies in the 45 percent to 50 percent range, compared to approximately 30 percent for conventional electrolysis. Added benefits include the avoidance of both greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption.

“We’ve shown that hydrogen can be produced at temperatures and pressures suitable for a Generation IV reactor,” said lead INEEL researcher Steve Herring. “The simple and modular approach we’ve taken with our research partners produces either hydrogen or electricity, and most notable of all – achieves the highest-known production rate of hydrogen by high-temperature electrolysis.”

This development is viewed as a crucial first step toward large-scale production of hydrogen from water, rather than fossil fuels.

The major private-sector collaborator has been Ceramatec, Inc. located at 2425 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City. “We’re pleased that the technology created over the nearly two decades dedicated to high-temperature fuel cell research at Ceramatec is directly applicable to hydrogen production by steam electrolysis,” said Ashok Joshi, Ph.D., Ceramatec chief executive officer.

“In fact, both fuel cell and hydrogen generation functionality can be embodied in a single device capable of seamless transition between the two modes. These years of investment, both public and private, in high temperature fuel cell research have enabled the Ceramatec-INEEL team to move quickly and achieve this important milestone toward establishing hydrogen as a part of our national energy strategy.”

The ceramic works as a sieve to separate the oxygen from the hydrogen. (same article here)

The new method involves running electricity through water that has a very high temperature. As the water molecule breaks up, a ceramic sieve separates the oxygen from the hydrogen.

But this approach requires the design and construction of new nuclear reactors that will use helium gas as the cooling medium and the helium would be heated to much higher temperatures than water is heated in existing reactor designs.

The idea is to build a reactor that would heat the cooling medium in the nuclear core, in this case helium gas, to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, or more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The existing generation of reactors--used exclusively for electric generation--use water for cooling and heat it to only about 300 degrees Celsius.

This latest advance does not solve any of the hydrogen transportation or storage problems. A whole new generation of nuclear reactors would need to be designed (with, no doubt, some unique and difficult design problems to solve) and built to operate with high temperature helium gas in their cores. Design and construction of those reactors would take several years (my guess is probably 10 or 12 and possibly longer). Given the costs and lead time involved and the existing unsolved problems in hydrogen transportation and storage my guess is that this technology is not going to see widespread use until the 2020s at the earliest.

The hydrogen economy is still a distant prospect. Advances in nanotechnology will probably eventually solve the hydrogen storage problem. But other advances in nanotechnology will also eventually solve the car battery problem to allow the construction of cheap electric-powered cars that can travel long distances. Once the car battery problem is solved it takes far less of a change in energy infrastructure to migrate to electric power than it would to migrate to a hydrogen economy. This is just a guess but in the next 20 years I expect better batteries to do more than better hydrogen technologies to change the energy infrastructure of the world.

For more on the potential of electric power for cars over on the Ergosphere blog Engineer-Poet (yet another pseudonymous blogger whose real identity is a mystery) provides some great tables on where our energy comes from today and an argument for plug-in hybrid cars. Check out the table that shows the amount of energy that comes from different sources as measured in quadrillion BTUs ("Quads"). Note that the coal and natural gas quads combined exceed the petroleum quads. But the coal and natural gas burned for electricity lose a lot of energy in conversion. So delivered to the wheel of a car petroleum does more work per BTU. Would a switch to coal to power electric cars therefore require a much greater total consumption of energy? E-P also casts a skeptical look at someone else's skeptical look at hybrids.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 December 02 01:48 PM  Energy Tech

mark said at December 2, 2004 3:03 PM:

I fail to see why a next-gen nuclear reactor is needed for this. Heat can be generated to pretty much arbitrary levels using existing sources. Hell, this would be a great application for the waste heat that power plants already pump out. A good instance of cogeneration. Solar furnaces would work great too if the limiting factor is just getting something really, really hot.

On a side note, isn't electrolysis still vastly less efficient than thermochemical separation? I remember reading something about heating water to the point where the bonds just break. It apparently took less energy to get to that point than to generate the electricity to crack water with electrolysis. Is this true? If so, why is any sort of electrolysis still being proposed?

Invisible Scientist said at December 3, 2004 8:42 AM:

YOU WROTE: "I fail to see why a next-gen nuclear reactor is needed for this. Heat can be generated to pretty much arbitrary levels using existing sources."

Some older nuclear reactors operate at low temperatures.
For thermo-chemical processes, a much higher temperature is needed, and this necessitates newer generation
nuclear reactors.

But for electrolysis improvement, the steam from the older reactors might be enough, although the older reactors
are already used for electricity, and they are close to being decommissioned due to old age.

Additionally, the newer generation reactors are much more uranium fuel efficient, up to 10,000 % more than the older
reactors ( 1 % of the uranium fuel is needed. ) This is achieved by burning many types of nuclear components in the reaction,
especialy the long term nuclear waste as fuel. This leaves only short term nuclear waste with half-life about 300 years,
making Yucca Mountain storage unnecessary even if we build hundreds of new reactors. This is relevant because if we start
using reactors to replace fossile fuels, then hundreds of reactors may be needed, and these reactors would then have
to be very fuel efficient and very clean in terms of building nuclear waste.

Mark said at December 3, 2004 10:50 AM:

You're preaching to the choir about the IFR. I'm all about that. All I'm saying is that the temperatures needed to get this thing working can be gotten from anywhere. Heat is heat. You could use the steam from a coal plant for all that it matters and heat that up further with other sources. Of course, generating that extra heat is probably more energy intensive than the savings of this would justify.

I still think an H2 economy isn't going to be worth it with regard to cost. ethanol doped fuel all the way! Between that and hybrids, we'll be set for thousands of years.

Invisible Scientist said at December 3, 2004 11:28 AM:

I have read that about 400 degrees Celsius would be required from some advanced thermochemical
processes to generate Hydrogen. Some other similar processes need 700 degrees Celsius.

The 400 degrees Celsius, may be possible from a coal-fired plant, but the environmental CO_2 issues
would be a problem, although more recent (somewhat expensive but acceptable) CO_2 capture methods can be used
to control the carbon dioxide emissions. Given that the US is the Saudi Arabia of coal, the chances are very high
that even if we use the coal in a wasteful way in order to make it burn clean without CO_2 and other pollutants, then
things will return back to normal for the US. Until the 1970s the US was the greatest creditor country, and since
then we became the greatest debtor country in the world ( I am not talking about the gov't deficit spending, which is
an internal matter for the US.)

Mark said at December 3, 2004 2:36 PM:

not to get too off topic but...

I wouldn't worry too much about the US being a "debtor" nation. All that means is that more investment is coming into the US than is going out to other countries. This is a good thing since it indicates that foreign investors see the US as a good place in invest money. This is reflected in the fact that we have had the highest standard of living for generations. Plus, even though we've been a debtor nation for most of our history (including long stretches before 1970) our standard of living has gone up. At different times we're changed roles between being a creditor and a debtor but there is no clear correlation between those roles and any economic status during those times.

This is a different type of debt than getting money lent to us from foreign governments like some 3rd world countries do. That's real debt and that's the bad kind.

I'm not sure if there is a "normal" status for any nation on earth. There's just the use of resources and trade which shifts with demand.

Mark said at December 3, 2004 2:38 PM:

by the way, didn't funding for the IFR dry up? Is there any talk of research starting up on that again or is everyone to0 smitten by pebble-bed reactors?

Randall Parker said at December 3, 2004 3:24 PM:


One big reason the US is a debtor nation is that Japan and China buy US Treasuries in order to prop up their own currencies. That money is not a vote of confidence in our economy.

IFR funding: It did not dry up due to Pebble Bed Modular Reactor funding. IFR funding appears to have been killed by Congressional opponents of nuclear power who did not want a form of nuclear power that produced far less nuclear waste. Reduce nuclear waste far enough and the problem with nuclear waste ceases to be an excuse for opposition to nuclear power. Can't have that.

GENEarchy said at December 3, 2004 5:02 PM:

Eventually, none of this will matter, & all of you know it!! The same ever-progressing tech that leads to cures for everything as well as to immortality will also lead to the dehumanity & full mechanization of man. In the omni-manipulable, omni-predictable world of the near future, suicide may just reign supreme among our most common desires. Bright future, Hooray!!

Mark said at December 4, 2004 8:46 AM:

You're probably right about the IFR reasoning but that's just the most ironic thing I can think of. The main argument (aside from weapon stuff) against nuke power is what to do with the waste. Once you take that out of the picture, what's really left to oppose? That's just jackassary. Are they really that concerned about the weaponization? Or are they just worried that their constituency will roast them for voting for big-bad nuclear power? Are there any groups lobbying for the return of IFR funding, cause I'd like to fight for it.

Mark said at December 4, 2004 9:03 AM:

wait, if Asia is buying bonds from the US, doesn't that mean that they are banking on us being able to pay up on them when they come due? isn't that a vote of confidence?

Invisible Scientist said at December 4, 2004 2:31 PM:

Randall Parker:

You wrote:
"IFR funding: It did not dry up due to Pebble Bed Modular Reactor funding. IFR funding appears to have been killed by Congressional opponents of nuclear power who did not want a form of nuclear power that produced far less nuclear waste. Reduce nuclear waste far enough and the problem with nuclear waste ceases to be an excuse for opposition to nuclear power. Can't have that. "

Actually, since Machiavelli was one of my C+ students, let me give some more details about my speculations on the
lack of funding for the IFR... The best advantage of the IFR is not that it totally burns its long term nuclear waste
as fuel, but it is that the IFR can be 100 times (i.e. 10,000 %) more uranium fuel efficient than the older designs!

The main uranium producers already know that there will be a boom in the need of uranium in the world even if there is only
a slow approval for nuclear energy... And there is a monopoly of a few companies that do the uranium mining, the main one
being Cameco, whose stock (CCJ, NYSE symbol) is sykrocketing with good reason... And sooooo... If the future reactor
designs ultimately become 100 times more fuel efficient, then even if the world uses 1000 times more nuclear reactors,
this would multiply the demand for uranium only 10 times. But noooooo! That much more profit is simply not enough. The cake
is too small to split... What I am saying is that this IFR funding issue became one area both the Green environmentalist anti-nuclear
people, the oil lobby, and the nuclear industry, to agree on killing the IFR. Normally, the interests of the latter 3 groups
should collide, but this time there was perfect harmony. In Ancient Greece, the Cynics were a cult of philosophers who used to
see the world as it is, but not as it should be...

Invisible Scientist said at December 4, 2004 3:40 PM:


"wait, if Asia is buying bonds from the US, doesn't that mean that they are banking on us being able to pay up on them when they come due? isn't that a vote of confidence?"

One of the main reasons Asia is buying bonds is not just for investment, but more importantly, the most popular international
currency to pay for raw material imports, happens to be the US dollar. Many Asian countries, especially China and Japan are
very dependent on raw material imports, which include not only oil, but a lot of minerals which they simply do not have any.

So far, no other currency, not even the reliable euro is not accepted as much as the US dollar by raw materials producing
countries. This might change in the future, as euro becomes an acdeptable form of international currency, but this MEANS
that in exchange for accepting the euro for raw materials, the raw materials producing countries would then want the
Europeans to grant extra concessions, such as the right to purchase European
land and corporations, as well as political concessions. The United States maintains the value of its currency
by selling parts of Americal to all foreigners who have excess dollars that result from the trade deficit. Even
US citizenship can be bought with enough dollars. Thus if the euro starts replacing the dollar, the raw materials
countries will (as a byproduct) gain more power in Europe, possibly making Europe turn against the US a lot more than it is now.

But stopping this digression, let me return back to what I was saying about the function of the US dollar abroad: the
foreigners need a trade surplus with the US not just to keep their economies from imploding, but more importantly, to have
the extra dollars to buy raw materials. They invest in the US in order to prevent the dollar to plunge in value, so that the
price of the raw materials they import does not increase too much. Again, I must re-emphasize: China and Japan have almost
no raw materials, and especially China will be in trouble since China has a lot more room for growth than Japan, and they
will have a shortage of funds to pay for the raw materials imports in the future, unless the value of dollars is maintained (and
of course, the continually increasing trade surplus.)

Meng Ni said at February 19, 2006 10:17 PM:

Electrolysis is a practical technology for large-scale and renewable hydrogen production in the near and medium term.

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