I am always glad when I hear of research and development dollars going to deserving projects led by deserving researchers. Today (August 16) I read a news release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reporting that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded more than $1.1 million to a UW-Madison researcher to develop ways to analyze, among other things, the behaviour of coolant in the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP).
The NGNP is a helium-cooled graphite-moderated reactor that will draw heavily on the Fort St. Vrain machine that operated in Colorado from 1976 to 1989. Using helium as coolant allows for higher outlet temperatures than water-cooled reactors: 700 to 950 Celsius. In that temperature range, using zero-carbon heat, you can do a lot of interesting and useful things—including efficiently splitting CO2 to make carbon monoxide.
Nuclear R&D has taken hits in the current atmosphere of budget cuts and post-Fukushima media hysteria. So it is nice to see that there is still some work being done. And especially in an area of such critical importance to the C1 Economy.
The C1 Economy is the real Hydrogen Economy. Carbon is the best material in which to store hydrogen in a way that makes it portable as a vehicle fuel. Otherwise, practical storage of hydrogen is several scientific breakthroughs away. That has been the problem with conventional visions of the Hydrogen Economy: they all envision hydrogen as a pure fuel. With today’s materials and technologies, we simply cannot store pure hydrogen in a way that makes it practical as an automobile fuel.
It will take huge amounts of heat to put carbon into a form that makes it bondable to hydrogen. The most flexible C1 compound is carbon monoxide (CO), but its flexibility lies in its reactivity, which means it does not hang around very long in nature. This means it must be manufactured. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant raw material with which to make CO, but in terms of reactivity it is the opposite of CO—it is extremely stable. Hence the requirement for heat to split it.
That heat cannot come from just any source, however. It must come from a source that is itself CO2-free. Otherwise, we will never de-carbonize the economy.
And the only large scale, proven, cheap source of CO2-free heat is of course nuclear fission. The higher the temperature of this heat, the more efficiently we can convert CO2 into CO. This is why I’m so optimistic about the NGNP.
Congratulations to Dr. Corradini, who will lead the NGNP work at UW-Madison. I wish him, his team, and fellow researchers fruitful and enjoyable research.