Sunday, November 28, 2004

The promise: a hydrogen economy,
the cost: more nuclear power

The main problem with producing hydrogen is that it takes more energy to extract it than you can get out of the resulting hydrogen. In other words, hydrogen is currently a net energy drain. That means it is NOT an energy source, but rather an energy carrier.

Still, if the difference between energy in and energy out in hydrogen production can be narrowed, the universe's lightest element might be useful as a non-polluting transportation fuel. This would require that energy used to produce it doesn't pollute more than the gasoline and diesel engines currently in use. Right now, since so much of the electricity that would be harnessed to make hydrogen is produced with coal and natural gas, it's doubtful we'd end up with less pollution as a result. (There is also the question of natural gas supply which is getting increasingly tight.)

The New York Times reports, however, that researchers have found a way to greatly reduce the energy input in producing hydrogen. The catch: They do it with nuclear power. The kind of reactor necessary is not in widespread use and many of them would have to be built in order to accomplish what the researchers envision.

Apart from all the problems inherent in the production of nuclear power--what to do with the radioactive waste, the risk of accident, the vulnerability to attack--the researchers make an assumption which may not turn out to be true, to wit: uranium is plentiful.

It's true that uranium fuel for nuclear reactors has been in oversupply since the early '80s when high uranium prices and concerns over future supplies led nuclear utilities to stockpile vast quantities of the fuel. Those huge stockpiles depressed the uranium market, severely curtailing exploration efforts and crippling the uranium mining sector.

But that has now suddenly changed. Uranium fuel recently doubled in price from $10 a pound to $20, and it looks like Canada, where great stores of uranium ore are thought to reside, appears to be in a uranium boom. That may mean more supply in the years to come, but even uranium is not an unlimited resource. Like oil, it will reach a peak in production sometime in this century and thereafter decline.

No one knows for sure how much uranium the new mining boom will uncover. But, the answer to that question would go a long way in determining whether nuclear power could help create a hydrogen-based economy.

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