Hydrogen can produce nearly three times more energy per kilogram than gasoline, diesel, or methane. That simple fact, coupled with the promise of carbon-free emissions, makes it an increasingly attractive energy option as the demand for power and electricity increases, reserves of fossil fuels dwindle, and environmental concerns become a larger priority.
While engineers have found some small-scale successes in building hydrogen-based systems, both technical and societal hurdles must be cleared before hydrogen can be used more widely.
The 'Joint ICTP-IAEA Advanced School on the Role of Nuclear Technology in Hydrogen-Based Energy Systems,' which ran from 13 to 18 June, examined the potential promise of a hydrogen-based economy and the bridges that must be built between current power sources and a cleaner future.
Current infrastructure, economic systems, and technological limitations will necessitate a long transition between conventional energy sources and newer technologies.
Nuclear power might serve as that bridge. Existing reactors could be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis, and the IAEA estimates that in future reactors, either electrolysis or chemical processes could produce hydrogen with as much as 95% efficiency.
However, these reactors might not be built for many years yet considering public concerns with nuclear power and the need for large, long-term investments. More research and development will be necessary to design new components, including reactor materials, efficient chemical processes, and large-scale hydrogen storage systems.
Overall, presenters seemed sure that the ideas necessary to do so already exist, and just have to be refined. During a lecture by Günther Scherer, an audience member asked if the best fuel cells of the future would be based on incremental refinements of existing ideas, or on some yet-undiscovered technologies. Scherer, a researcher at Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institute answered. "There are always new ideas around, but then they turn out to be old ideas."
After outlining the current energy landscape and the potential benefits of a hydrogen economy, the lectures focused on the tools and techniques that could be used in the development of new hydrogen systems. Topics included developing new structural materials, multi-scale modelling of material properites, and the ongoing challenges in fuel cell and hydrogen storage system designs.
Participants also learned about a new, freely available software program developed by the IAEA, called the Hydrogen Economic Evaluation Program (HEEP). HEEP could help determine where hydrogen-producing nuclear power plants are a viable option. It can be used to analyze the performance and economics of hydrogen production processes that use nuclear power, then compare them to processes that use fossil energy to produce hydrogen or to processes that also generate electricity.
Now, the 29 participants (24 of whom came from developing countries) will return to their home countries and put their new technical knowledge to use in improving their existing work and start taking those incremental steps toward a hydrogen-based economy.