Why pink hydrogen produced using nuclear power may have a big role to play
Pink and blue were used to differentiate the different methods of hydrogen production.
Eve Livesey | time | Getty Images
From from Tesla Elon Musk to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Over the past few years, many high-profile names have spoken about the role hydrogen may — or may not — play in the planet’s transition to a more sustainable future.
Musk has expressed skepticism about the usefulness of hydrogen, but many believe it could help reduce emissions in a number of sectors, including transportation and heavy industry.
Although there is a major buzz about hydrogen and its importance as a tool for securing a low-carbon future – a subject that has generated much debate in recent months – the vast majority of its production is still based on fossil fuels.
Indeed, according to a September 2022 follow-up report from the International Energy Agency, low-emission hydrogen production in 2021 accounted for less than 1% of global hydrogen production.
If it is to play a role in the planned energy transition, hydrogen production must change quite significantly.
“The first thing to say is that hydrogen doesn’t really exist naturally, so it has to be produced,” said Rachael Rothman, co-director of the Grantham Center for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
“It has a lot of potential to help us decarbonize in the future, but first we need to find ways to produce it low-carbon,” she said, adding that different production methods had been “noted different colors”.
“About 95% of our hydrogen today comes from steam methane reforming and has a large carbon footprint associated with it, and it’s called ‘grey’ hydrogen,” Rothman told CNBC.
Gray hydrogen is, according to an energy company national grid, “created from natural gas or methane”. He says the greenhouse gases associated with the process are not captured, hence the carbon footprint that Rothman refers to.
The dominance of such a method is clearly at odds with net zero goals. As a result, a range of hydrogen sources, systems and colors are now offered as alternatives.
These include green hydrogen, which refers to hydrogen produced from renewable energy and electrolysis, with an electric current splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen.
Blue hydrogen, on the other hand, indicates the use of natural gas – a fossil fuel – and the use and storage of carbon. There has been heated debate around the role that blue hydrogen could play in decarbonizing society.
Besides blue and green, another eye-catching color is pink. Like green hydrogen, its process incorporates electrolysis, but there is one key difference: pink uses nuclear.
“If you split…water, you get hydrogen and oxygen,” Rothman said. “But splitting water requires energy, so pink hydrogen is all about splitting water using nuclear energy.”
This means that “the whole system is low carbon, because…there is no carbon in the water…but also the power source is also very low carbon. carbon because it is nuclear”.
Along with electrolysis, Rothman noted that nuclear could also be used with what is called a thermochemical cycle.
This, she explained, exploited very high temperatures to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.
Pink hydrogen already has potentially large backers. These include EDF Energy, which has floated the idea of producing hydrogen at Sizewell C, a 3.2 gigawatt nuclear power station planned for the UK.
“At Sizewell C, we are exploring how we can produce and use hydrogen in multiple ways,” said the indicates the company’s website. “First, it could help reduce emissions during the construction of the plant.”
“Secondly, once Sizewell C is operational, we hope to use some of the heat it generates (alongside electricity) to make hydrogen more efficiently,” he adds.
EDF Energy, which is part of the multinational EDF Groupsaid in a statement sent to CNBC: “Hydrogen produced from nuclear can play an important role in the energy transition.”
The company also recognized that the sector and its development face challenges.
“Hydrogen is currently a relatively expensive fuel and the main challenge for low-carbon electrolytic hydrogen, whether produced from renewable or nuclear energy, is to reduce production costs”, a- he declared.
This required “supportive policies that encourage investment in early hydrogen generation projects and encourage users to switch from fossil fuels to low-carbon hydrogen.”
“The growth of the low-carbon hydrogen market will enable economies of scale and ‘learning by doing’ that will help reduce production costs.”
While there is excitement about the role nuclear could play in hydrogen production and the broader energy transition – the IEA, for example, says nuclear power has “significant potential to contribute to decarbonisation of the electricity sector” – it goes without saying that it is not favored by all.
Critics include Greenpeace. “Nuclear power is touted as a solution to our energy problems, but in reality, building it is complex and extremely expensive,” the environmental organization said. “It also creates huge amounts of hazardous waste.”
A multicolored future?
During his interview with CNBC, Rothman from the University of Sheffield talked about the big picture and the role different types of hydrogen could play. Could we ever see a time when the blue and gray hydrogen level drops to zero?
“It depends on how long you’re looking at,” she said, adding that “in an ideal world, they’ll end up falling very low.”
“Ultimately, we ideally get rid of all of our gray hydrogen because gray hydrogen has a big carbon footprint and we need to get rid of it,” Rothman said.
“As we improve carbon capture and storage, there may be space for blue hydrogen and that remains to be assessed, depending on … developments there.”
“The pink and green that we know has to be a gap because that’s where you really get the low carbon [hydrogen]and we know it should be, it’s possible to make it happen.”
Fiona Rayment, chief scientist at the UK National Nuclear Laboratory – which, like EDF Energy, is a member of the trade association Hydrogen UK – stressed the importance of having a range of options available in the years to come.
“The challenge of net zero cannot be underestimated; we will need to embrace all sources of low-carbon hydrogen production to replace our reliance on fossil fuels,” she told CNBC.
While there has been much discussion about using colors to differentiate between different hydrogen production methods, there is also a lively discussion about whether such a classification system should even exist.
“What we want is low-carbon hydrogen,” Rothman said. “And I know there’s a lot of confusion about the different colors, and I’ve heard some people say… ‘why do we even have the colors, why don’t we just have hydrogen and low-carbon hydrogen? “”
“And at the end of the day, it’s the low-carbon bit that’s important, and pink and green would do that.”