Decarbonizing Steel Production with Nuclear Hydrogen

Steel production accounts for more than seven per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That percentage is set to soar in the coming decades, along with a rising demand for steel, which is vital for sectors ranging from energy and transport to construction and consumer appliances. However, nuclear energy could help put steel production on a path to net zero.

About two billion tonnes of steel are produced annually around the world. According to the International Energy Agency, steel demand is projected to rise by more than a third by 2050, mainly in developing countries. A growing number of global companies are looking for ways to decarbonize the energy-intensive industrial processes of this sector.

The steel industry largely depends on coking coal to power blast furnaces, which turn iron ore into steel, a process that emits large quantities of CO2. However, it is possible to create steel using a method called direct reduction of iron, in which hydrogen reacts with iron ore without melting and emits water vapour and no CO2.

“The amount of hydrogen needed to create green steel is staggering. Traditionally, fossil fuels have been used to generate almost all hydrogen, therefore finding the necessary amount of decarbonized hydrogen is going to be one of the biggest challenges,” said Francesco Ganda, Technical Lead for Non‑Electric Applications at the IAEA. “Nuclear hydrogen production, with zero emissions, can really be a game changer for the sector, as nuclear power has the potential to provide sufficient heat and electricity 24/7 to produce the required amount of hydrogen. This could help to make huge strides in the clean energy transition.”

Nuclear power reactors coupled with a hydrogen production plant can efficiently produce both energy and hydrogen as a cogeneration system, fitted with components for either electrolysis or thermochemical processes. Electrolysis is the process of inducing water molecules to split using a direct electric current, producing both hydrogen and oxygen.

Water electrolysis operates at relatively low temperatures of less than 100 degrees Celsius, while steam electrolysis operates at much higher temperatures of around 700 degrees to 800 degrees Celsius and requires less electricity than water electrolysis. Water electrolysis is a process whereby electricity is used to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in water. This type of technology has been commercially available for decades. High temperature electrolysis follows the same principle but uses water in the form of steam, thereby reducing the amount of electricity required.

Advances in electrolyser technologies are making hydrogen production from conventional nuclear power reactors more efficient and cheaper. At least one nuclear power plant in the United States of America — Prairie Island in Minnesota — is installing a high temperature electrolyser and is using heat from the reactor to lower the electricity use and, therefore, the cost of nuclear hydrogen production.

“The high-temperature process of solid oxide electrolysers can take advantage of heat energy from a nuclear power plant in the form of steam, giving the electrolyser an incredibly high efficiency rate,” said Akhil Batheja, Director of Hydrogen Business Development at Bloom Energy, a company that produces solid oxide fuel cells for energy generation. “Since electricity costs represent the majority of costs involved in electrolysed hydrogen, this presents the best economic value proposition for a nuclear power plant and for creating low carbon hydrogen.”

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In the US there are plans to try steel from nuclear hydrogen in the Chicago area. I presume in a Gary, IN steel mill. This is part of plans under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Any one know what is the largest steel from hydrogen plant built? Operating? Still in pilot stages?

I presume they use electric furnace to melt the iron. Aren’t carbon electrodes usually used?

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