Is Red Hydrogen the Breakthrough Technology We've Been Waiting For?

Dave Nichols
December 12, 2022
When everyone is driving a green car, we’ll need abundant sources of clean electricity and hydrogen to power future EVs. Japan may have an answer in the form of nuclear energy-powered red hydrogen.
solar panels and wind turbines on a grassy landscape

The Future of Hydrogen Production

Every year, more and more electric vehicles hit the market. In 2022 alone, there were over 30 new EVs introduced - and that pace will only accelerate. As more electric car drivers recharge their  vehicles overnight, the total load will put a strain on our electric grids, which in many areas of the country, are already challenged to deliver the power we need. How can we produce the electricity required to power our cars - and do so in a clean, carbon-neutral way - is an important problem to solve.

Today, much of the world's electricity is created through the conversion of coal or natural gas - and those methods of creating electricity are far from clean. However, Japan thinks it may have a possible solution - by using hydrogen.

"Red hydrogen" is produced with nuclear energy. Japan is a world leader in nuclear energy production, and both its energy and automotive sectors have made major investments in hydrogen over the years. Combining both of these technologies together in a breakthrough process, Japan is showing a promising way forward for clean energy production.

Japan’s Green Growth Strategies plans for the country to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. After nuclear power, hydrogen has the highest specific energy density of any known fuel. It can be burned to generate heat and used in fuel cells to generate electricity, and, in both cases, the only thing released is water vapor, making the process carbon-free.

Person in Lab

Japan is Developing a New Type of Nuclear Reactor

Tragically, the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 caused many countries to rethink their use of nuclear energy, shutting down powerplants worldwide. In America, 26 of the 96 operational nuclear reactors have been decommissioned in the last decade. Japan closed down all its nuclear reactors and went back to burning coal, oil and natural gas to cover its energy gap. But it has been working hard to come up with a better solution - a new nuclear reactor that is incapable of a meltdown.

This new type of reactor is called a High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (HTGR).

While most reactors use fission energy from uranium or plutonium to generate heat and use liquid water as a coolant, HTGR reactors replace water with helium gas. Helium can be heated to a much higher temperature than water, allowing the reactor to be operated at over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit compared to water-cooled reactors, which can barely reach 600 degrees. Using helium gas also makes the reactor simpler, as it does not have to be drained constantly.

The heat created by the HTGR process can then be used to power heavy industrial processes. Indeed, HTGR heat can be used in the steam reforming process used to produce hydrogen from methane and other components of natural gas. This means hydrogen can be made without using fossil fuels. By marrying an HTGR reactor to a thermochemical hydrogen production plant, hydrogen can be produced in a clean and sustainable manner.

A test reactor was put into service on July 30, 2021, and it has been operating at full power ever since. In a further evolution, in February of 2022, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry was commissioned to build Japan’s biggest-ever hydrogen production plant using an even better system known as a High Temperature Engineering Test Reactor (HTTR).

This will be the first time that humankind has produced large quantities of hydrogen in a constant, reliable, and economically feasible way without the risk of future reactor meltdowns. In addition to using helium gas for cooling, the plant has safety features including the use of tri-structure isotropic fuel - which is composed of tiny ceramic kernels, with six percent uranium oxide covered with four layers of highly resistant ceramics. This encapsulation traps radioactive waste inside, making it nearly impossible for radioactive waste to be released into the atmosphere in case of an accident.

Lab worker moving materials by robotic crane arm

What Are the Drawbacks of this Test Nuclear Reactor? 

The HTTR process is not perfect; they still create radioactive waste as a by-product. Over 250,000 tons of nuclear waste are currently housed in underground tunnels all over the world, and will remain  radioactive for thousands of years. HTTR waste will only add to that total if the world moves towards more nuclear power generation.

From a legislative perspective, both the U.S. and Europe have shown strong support for battery-electric technology in vehicles. Japan and companies like Toyota and Honda have held back on all-electric vehicles, betting on the future of hydrogen and the production of hydrogen-powered vehicles. But while hydrogen burns clean, it is only as clean as the energy and processes used to make it. Unfortunately, 90 percent of the world’s hydrogen is currently made by burning fossil fuels.

The red hydrogen process is clean and sustainable. Still, clean-burning hydrogen comes with its own challenges thanks to its volumetric density. Hydrogen must be compressed at very high pressures to make it practical. This creates challenges for storage and transportation. For these reasons and more, lithium-ion battery packs continue to be a less-expensive way of powering electric cars, compared to hydrogen fuel cells.

Installing the supporting infrastructure to distribute red hydrogen will likely take decades - meaning we have a long way to go before red hydrogen is powering our fuel cell electric vehicles. But in helping to cool nuclear reactors more safely and efficiently, red hydrogen might enable the opening of more, and safer, nuclear power plants to supply electricity globally.

Hydrogen storage and charging in garage

Scientists see HTTR Tech as a Game-Changer for Carbon Neutrality

Many scientists and automakers see HTTR technology as a game-changer in the quest for carbon neutrality worldwide, and look forward to the day when such advanced nuclear reactors are used to generate both electricity and make clean hydrogen available everywhere.

For a deeper dive into Japan's new hydrogen technology, read Red Hydrogen: How It Works next right here on GreenCars.com.

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