European firms partner to explore nuclear for hydrogen production

November 13, 2023, 7:00AMNuclear News
Concept art of a Rolls-Royce SMR plant. (Image: Rolls-Royce)

ULC-Energy, a nuclear development and consultancy company based in the Netherlands, has signed a memorandum of intent with Danish carbon emission reduction technology firm Topsoe and Britain’s Rolls-Royce SMR to investigate the production of hydrogen using Topsoe’s solid oxide electrolysis cell (SOEC) technology and electricity and heat from a Rolls-Royce small modular reactor plant.

Topsoe’s SOEC electrolyzer. (Photo: Topsoe)

In its November 2 announcement, ULC-Energy said that nuclear energy combined with SOEC technology has the potential to produce clean hydrogen more cheaply than alternative electrolysis processes due to the following:

Electrolysis takes place at a high temperature, which means that less electricity is needed to produce hydrogen.

Nuclear power plants can produce energy on average up to 95 percent of the time, significantly higher than alternative variable energy sources.

Nuclear energy can supply heat as well as electricity. By using heat directly, energy losses in the steam turbine can be avoided, thus increasing the effective energy capacity of the nuclear plant above its electrical power rating.

The joint investigation will include a valuation of the operational flexibility of the Rolls-Royce/Topsoe SOEC combination in the future green energy market, according to ULC-Energy. Topsoe, in a November 7 statement, added that the parties are initially looking to conduct a conceptual study to demonstrate synergies between the SMR and SOEC technologies.

Signers’ language: “Hydrogen will play an increasingly important role in balancing future energy markets,” declared Dirk Rabelink, ULC-Energy’s chief executive officer. “We expect nuclear energy, especially in combination with high-temperature electrolysis, to be able to produce zero-emission hydrogen competitively on a stand-alone basis. Additional value associated with the operational flexibility will further enhance the business case for this solution.”

Topsoe business development director Jack H. Carstensen noted, “SOEC is a modular design that leverages high-temperature electrolysis that enables industrial-scale production of clean hydrogen using clean energy. Due to the nature of the intrinsic fast-reaction kinetics and optimized conductivity found in high-temperature electrolysis, Topsoe’s SOEC technology produces more hydrogen per total power input when compared to the alternatives of alkaline and PEM [proton exchange membrane] electrolysis. Additionally, when coupled with a heat-producing technology such as nuclear, SOEC allows for the lowest levelized hydrogen cost with the highest level of energy efficiency.”

Harry Keeling, Rolls-Royce SMR’s industrial markets head, termed the production of low-cost hydrogen “a critical step on the pathway to decarbonizing our wider society” and called the MOI “an exciting step toward unleashing the potential of the Rolls-Royce SMR as its ability to flexibly provide thermal and electrical energy supports a wide range of industrial applications, chief amongst these being the large-scale generation of low-cost hydrogen.”

Background: ULC-Energy and Rolls-Royce SMR signed an exclusive agreement in August of last year to deploy SMR stations in the Netherlands. Said Rabelink at the time: “The Rolls-Royce SMR is ideally suited for the Dutch market. At 470 MW, and with a capacity factor [greater than] 95 percent, each unit makes a meaningful difference and can be deployed efficiently to either supply power to the grid or supply power and heat to dedicated industrial users.”

The following month, ULC-Energy signed a memorandum of understanding with Baltimore, Md.–based Constellation Energy to support that deployment. (Constellation is a minority shareholder in Rolls-Royce SMR.)

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