The Blob

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The China Syndrome

If you've read some of my recent blogs, you know my interest in the potential of hydrogen power from fuel cells. The trick is how to obtain hydrogen easily. Yes, we can extract hydrogen from the hydrocarbons inherent in petroleum, but that doesn't solve the long term problem. With heavily populated countries like India and China showing a rapidly growing demand for oil, the inevitable result will be higher prices and increased international tensions that could result. Add to that the fact that by remaining dependent on oil, we are increasingly beholden to the oil rich but politically and culturally dangerous Middle East. And as long as we continue to do so, we invite danger to our society.

Just think two words: Al-Queda.

In a previous blog, I proposed a competition similar to the Ansari X Prize, which offers a large reward for the first group to make two successful suborbital flights in less than two weeks. In this case, I proposed that a wealthy philanthopher or the US Government put up a huge prize for the first person, organization or company to offer a breakthrough in extracting hydrogen from water cheaply and safely. I'm no physicist or chemist, although I play one on television. And sadly, many more knowledgeable but pessimistic people than me throw, um, water on my naive notion that cheap and easy hydrogen extraction is possible without a source of tremendous heat and energy. They claim it's simply not practical, as the amount of energy involved exceeds the potential energy inherent in a calorie of hydrogen energy. In short, fuggedaboudit.

Enter the Chinese.

In a fascinating article in Wired Magazine, Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom, journalist Spencer Reiss visited what Chinese nuclear scientists are doing to create safe nuclear energy using a pebble bed reactor design.

Did I say nuclear energy?

You heard me. Mr. "No More Chernobyls!" himself is considering support of a new type of reactor design. Why? Because by design a pebble bed reactor cannot melt down. If you look at the article I've linked above, you'll see why. Instead of using white hot nuclear fuel rods immersed in highly corrosive, boiling hot, radioactive water, a pebble bed reactor uses thousands of billiard ball-sized balls of low-density uranium flecks encased in a carbon and silicon buffer. The balls are designed to last over one million years. And instead of circulating superheated water that can become corrosive and radioactive, a pebble bed reactor circulates inert helium gas, which can neither corrode the reactor vessel nor the pipes leading to the power generation turbines.

China is rapidly industrializing, and as it does, the demand for energy is skyrocketing. In response, the Chinese government is proposing building over 200 full-scale nuclear plants, with the goal of producing over 300 gigawatts of power. That's almost as much as all the nuclear power produced worldwide. They know that their society and economy cannot grow without an affordable source of power, and they can't do so if power would come from petroleum alone.

So where does hydrogen figure into all this?

Here's where it gets interesting. The helium gas that channels the heat energy from a pebble bed nuclear reactor carries a tremendous amount of heat. And extracting hydrogen from water takes exactly that - up to 1,000 degrees celsius. That's exactly what a pebble bed reactor can do. To some scientists, pebble bed reactor technology holds the promise of safe nuclear energy (the low-density uranium concentrations means they cannot give off plutomium, or have the potential of a nuclear meltdown). And its high heat production, according to Sandia National Laboratories, believe that the efficiency to extract hydrogen from water from this method could exceed 60 percent.

Finally, we might have a way to produce environmentally safe nuclear power, and in the process, have way to cheaply provide hydrogen fuel for fuel cell power. I dream of a day when we won't have to be dependent on a politically unstable and unfriendly Middle East for our power, when my car doesn't pollute, and when our energy comes from water and the sun, not from oil. I never imagined that some of the most progressive ideas might come from China, of all places. But they are taking a fresh look at how to solve energy problems. It's time we think the same way.