The idea of the ‘hydrogen economy’, a system based not on fossil fuels but on clean, cheaply produced hydrogen fuel has long been an ideal of proponents of renewable energy. The only by-product of hydrogen combustion is water, and it has the same thermal properties as existing fossil fuels. The main issue with current hydrogen production is that it is not used directly. It is used for fertilizers and oil refining, and methane is used in the production method. Therefore, while producing less emissions that a fossil fuel equivalent, it is no way carbon neutral. In fact, the International Energy Agency has calculated that hydrogen production is currently responsible for around 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year, and it is impossible to reduce this amount in the current processes without making it completely unaffordable. The answer to this, however, may lie in nuclear power plants.
EDF Energy have announced that they will be testing a plan to use the electrolysers that are part of the nuclear process to break down water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen at Heysham power plant. The idea of using nuclear plants to try and create hydrogen fuel is not new, but this is a significant step towards making it a reality. As this report says, nuclear plants are ideal for creating hydrogen because “they already produce the heat for changing water into steam and the electricity for breaking the steam down into hydrogen and oxygen.” They could take advantage of these by-products of the nuclear process in the plant’s off hours, and future plants could be designed specifically to be double function. The EDF test, then is a vital step forward in examining whether it is economically viable to produce hydrogen in this way, and how it stands up to traditional fuel sources. As Xavier Mano, Director of R & D at EDF Energy says, “(Heysham) opens the possibility of using nuclear in the UK in a new way. An existing source of reliable low carbon energy could produce a new, low carbon fuel.”
If hydrogen fuel can be produced in a carbon-efficient way like this, then it can revolutionise our society. In the short term, clan carbon can reduce emissions in its uses for refining oil and in fertilizers, while in the long-term, it could replace the carbon-based fuels we use for heating and transport. Hydrogen can be burned in an internal combustion engine, and with developments in fuel cell technology being a priority for car manufacturers, hydrogen fuel can be used in conventional cars alongside hybrids and electric cars, reducing the need for carbon-emitting fuels. It is still early days yet. Nuclear-produced hydrogen fuel is a long way off, but the first steps EDF are taking are very welcome. Hydrogen has always been something of a poisoned chalice for renewable energy; it should be a perfect solution, yet it is not. With this foray into practical testing, it will be seen if hydrogen fuel can be efficiently produced. If it can, then we should commit to it fully, and if this problem has been solved then affordable, low-carbon hydrogen fuel should be at the forefront of energy policy.