It’s exciting and fascinating to watch the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) take shape. The NGNP is a graphite moderated, gas-cooled nuclear reactor that draws on nearly half a century of R&D and operational experience with these kinds of reactors in the civilian nuclear sector. This will be a high-temperature machine—above 700°C at the outlet. Current water cooled reactors’ outlet temperatures are in the 250° to 350° range.
The high temperature of NGNP opens the door to a radical change in the hydrocarbon fuel sector. An entire new class of hydrocarbon products is now possible. This is because NGNP, and other reactors with similar temperature, will revolutionize the hydrogen market, by finally making water-derived hydrogen competitive, as a commodity, with natural gas-derived hydrogen.
This will make hydrogen-intensive chemical manufacturing processes—like oil sands upgrading, fertilizer production, and petroleum refining—far less carbon-intensive. Water-derived hydrogen involves none of the process carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that come with natural gas-derived hydrogen. And of course the process heat comes from nuclear fission, which is also CO2-free.
This explains why organizations like Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, Potash Corp., and ConocoPhilips are part of the NGNP Industry Alliance. All represent industries that are under the gun because of economic pressures (the continental price of natural gas will not stay cheap forever) and environmental concerns.
But beyond satisfying the demand for hydrogen in current industries, what doors will the cheap, clean, plentiful hydrogen from NGNP open?
The real breakthrough will come with the advent of hydrocarbon fuels made from recycled CO2. As I mentioned in “Game-changing nuclear moves in the US,” carbon is about the closest anything has ever come to being a perfect storage material for hydrogen. Hydrogen on its own is an extremely uncooperative substance when it comes to fueling motorized vehicles like the ones we use today. You cannot use it in a normal-size fuel tank; it has to be so pressurized that only a spherical or cylindrical tank will suffice, and tanks of that shape are not practical in the current vehicle fleet.
But if you store hydrogen in a molecular bond with carbon, you get a fuel that is liquid at most temperatures found on this planet. That allows you much more latitude when it comes to fuel tank design. It also gives your vehicle a reasonable range—400 to 500 kilometers from a single tank.
To use CO2 as a raw material to make liquid hydrocarbons, it is best to first turn it into carbon monoxide (CO), which is far more reactive and therefore useful than CO2. To make CO from CO2, you need heat and hydrogen.
Hence the NGNP’s vital role in the new fuel economy. If the heat for both water- and CO2-splitting comes from a zero-carbon source, then you’ve got a low-carbon manufacturing process.
And if the CO2 itself were to come from the captured emissions of coal-fired power plants, then fuels made from it would contain recycled carbon.
That’s the Three Rs in action.