Reactor-based energy system to manufacture hydrogen fuel

The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has been chosen to lead a joint research program to develop a ‘nuclear-based energy supply system’.

The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has been chosen to lead a joint research program to develop a ‘proliferation-resistant’ and economical nuclear-based energy supply system for use after the year 2020.

“The basic concept is to use ‘clean’ nuclear energy as the heat source for manufacturing hydrogen, a clean chemical fuel that burns without releasing carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming,” said Dave Wade, director of Argonne’s Reactor Analysis Division.

‘In contrast to current greenhouse-gas-intensive hydrogen-production technologies,” he said, “no greenhouse gases will be released at any point in the system’s entire energy cycle, since it is based on a nuclear reactor.’

The project combines the efforts of Argonne’s Reactor Analysis, Reactor Engineering and Energy Systems divisions. Working with Argonne will be Texas A&M University, General Electric, the Japan Nuclear Cycle and Development Institute, and the Italian National Agency for New Technology, Energy and Environment.

The three-year project will receive about $465,000 for the first year’s work. It is one of 10 new projects for fiscal year 2000 chosen in a competitive peer-reviewed process under the US Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), a $22.5-million-per-year program. NERI funds a total of 56 projects.

Concern about nuclear proliferation will be reduced by using nuclear fuel cartridges that only need changing every 15 to 30 years. Fuel-handling equipment will be brought to the site only as needed to change cartridges and then removed. Plans call for fuel to be owned by regional consortia monitored closely by international agencies.

The reactor will be “passively safe,” which means it will shut down automatically if it starts to overheat. “The reactor core will be made of materials that expand enough when overheated that the fuel elements in the core move apart, allowing neutrons to escape and stopping the chain reaction,” Wade said. This safety capability was demonstrated in 1986 at the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II), a research reactor that Argonne operated in southeastern Idaho until it was shut down in 1994.

The reactor core, he said, will sit in a pool of molten lead or tin with an enormous capacity to absorb heat before boiling. Natural convection currents in the pool cause the liquid to flow through the core, cooling it. This simplifies the reactor design and makes it less expensive by eliminating the need for pumps. The safety advantage of a large molten metal pool was also demonstrated in Argonne’s 1986 experiments at EBR-II.