Technology: Can Pink Hydrogen Help Decarbonize Transport?

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The deployment of "pink" hydrogen production via nuclear power would open up multiple non-power markets currently inaccessible to nuclear operators, including two transport sectors historically off-limits to nuclear energy: aviation and shipping. Both industries are looking towards hydrogen and hydrogen-heavy synthetic fuels in order to meet their decarbonization goals, and both represent a significant potential market for pink hydrogen, particularly from small modular reactors (SMRs) that can be sited more strategically.

Shipping and aviation each produced about 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency and both have few available alternatives to conventional fuels. Their still-nascent synthetic fuels industries will need to develop rapidly in order to meet industry self-imposed and individual government decarbonization goals. But low-emission hydrogen accounted for less than 1% of global hydrogen production in 2021, and production will need to be scaled up as quickly as possible — which is why the shipping and aviation industries are latching on to the potential for nuclear-produced or “pink” hydrogen. SMRs, which could be comparatively quickly deployed compared to conventional large nuclear and could be strategically placed near airports or shipping ports, are of particular interest.

“Nuclear can be a very strong player" in hydrogen production, Mark Tipping, offshore technology manager at maritime technology company Lloyds Register, told a recent Advanced Nuclear Technologies conference in Manchester. “Nuclear stays relevant from whatever angle you look at it.”

SMR and advanced reactor vendors are already cognizant of the potential for pink hydrogen, with multiple vendors conducting studies and demonstrations to assess their reactors’ abilities to produce hydrogen. But as mandates begin forcibly ensuring the production of synthetic fuels from low-carbon hydrogen, backstopped by billions of dollars and euros in subsidies, nuclear vendors might find themselves with more partners, offtakers or financiers interested in their products.

Pink hydrogen can be produced by nuclear reactors powering electrolyzers, or theoretically by high-temperature electrolyzers that produce hydrogen more efficiently using both electricity and high-temperature steam from the reactor. “That constant energy, that source of heat can be a game changer in the viability of synthetic fuels from nuclear,” Allan Simpson, chief technologist at Equilibrion, a company working to decarbonize heat, transport and industry with nuclear energy, told the Manchester conference.

Aviation Decarbonization

In aviation, there are three routes to decarbonization currently being explored: fully-electric planes; the use of 100% hydrogen in planes, something being pursued most notably by Airbus; and synthetic aviation fuel (SAF). Of the second two routes, "hydrogen-derived SAFs are much more mature with cost being the main barrier to deployment," the International Energy Agency wrote in a September hydrogen report. "Hydrogen-powered aviation is more challenging and the technologies are still at a relatively early stage of development."

SAF’s biggest selling point is that it’s a drop-in fuel, or one that can be substituted for conventional jet fuel without any changes required to engines or fueling infrastructure. It is already certified for use up to a 50% blending level with conventional jet fuel, with ongoing testing to reach 100%. But the SAF market also presents an opportunity for hydrogen, which can be used to create “power-to-liquids” fuel, or e-SAF, created by combining clean hydrogen with climate-neutral carbon (for instance, extracted by carbon capture) to generate liquid hydrocarbons. That feedstock is then converted to synthetic kerosene.

Most SAF so far has been made from used cooking oil, because eSAFs have historically come with a significantly higher cost attached. As the clean hydrogen industry ramps up, however, and as new technologies drive down costs, some airlines – and countries -- are already betting big on power-to-liquids. The United Kingdom and the European Union are both looking to implement specific blending mandates for e-SAF as well as SAF, despite only a handful of pilot plants operating.

“We think one typical SMR with the processes to generate synthetic fuel could help to decarbonize circa 2,100 flights from London to New York a year,” said Simpson. “To put that in context, there are 2,500 flights leaving the UK each day,” he added, emphasizing the large market potential for pink hydrogen. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, has set a goal for the aviation industry of reaching net zero by 2050. That would be accomplished through certified offsets initially, before shifting to SAF targets once it is available on a wider scale.

Just this week France's EDF launched a "Take Kair" industrial project with Holcim, IFP Energies nouvelles and Axens that produce kerosene for e-SAF at a pilot plant in Loire-Atlantique, France. The Air France-KLM Group would be the main off-taker of the project, which would start production in 2028. The e-SAF plant would apparently be powered from France's nuclear-dominant grid. "With the Take Kair project, EDF, the world's first producer of low-carbon electricity, notably thanks to its nuclear power plants, confirms the commitment made, in particular through its hydrogen plan, to accelerate the deep decarbonization of the sectors that contributes at the highest to CO2 emissions," Cedric Lewandowski, the head of EDF's nuclear and thermal assets, said in a Jun. 22 statement.

Shipping Shows Promise

On the shipping side, where the International Maritime Organization has set a goal of halving emissions by 2050 compared to 2008 levels, clean ammonia is the name of the game. The IEA forecasts that green ammonia could power almost half of the world’s shipping fleet by 2050. “Ships are being built that can burn ammonia already,” said Lloyd Register’s Tipping. “But we need the fuel.” Another option under consideration is clean methanol, which requires clean hydrogen to be combined with climate-neutral carbon, but "constraints on the availability of biogenic or direct air capture CO2 feedstock at a reasonable cost make the competitive edge of synthetic methanol over low-emission ammonia uncertain," concluded the IEA.

Clean ammonia requires considerable amounts of clean hydrogen – one ammonia-fueled ocean-going vessel would require approximately 11,772 tons of clean hydrogen per year, according to the US Department of Energy. The shipping industry will also be competing with the entire fertilizer industry for ammonia, and is therefore looking for every possible avenue to secure supply. Hydrogen is also quite difficult to transport, leading Tipping to moot the idea of using floating offshore SMRs for the production of hydrogen and ammonia. “Marine is around the world, so you need to have infrastructure wherever you’re going to deliver it,” said Tipping.

Unlike aviation, ships need to be specifically designed to be able to handle ammonia or methanol, which are not “drop-in” fuels, meaning most currently operating ships will be incapable of easily switching to clean fuels.

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