Manufacturing Bits: Sept. 9

Fusion energy; green hydrogen; next-gen nuclear.


Fusion energy
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $29 million in funding for several projects to develop fusion energy technology.

The projects will focus on the components, materials and technologies to develop a long-awaited but elusive net-energy-gain “fusion core.”

For years, companies, governments and universities have been working on fusion power technology. Fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and the stars, is a potential source of safe, non-carbon emitting energy on earth. But developing the technology is challenging. Most, if not all, efforts have shown minimal results or have failed.

Historically, the industry has mainly focused on achieving the required fuel density, temperature and energy confinement time required for a viable fusion energy system, according to the DOE. While this work is still ongoing, there is a need to focus on the materials and other technologies in the arena.

To advance this work, the DOE announced funding for 14 projects in the arena. This effort is called the Galvanizing Advances in Market-aligned fusion for an Overabundance of Watts (GAMOW) program. It is co-sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and the Office of Science–Fusion Energy Sciences (SC-FES).

“Fusion energy is a potentially game-changing clean energy source, but it has faced scientific and technical challenges for decades,” said ARPA-E Director Lane Genatowski. “GAMOW teams will work to further develop enabling fusion materials and subsystem technologies, with a focus on the timely future commercialization and deployment of fusion energy generation.”

GAMOW is designed to close the gap to enable a net-energy-gain “fusion core.” Projects in the program will address the following:
*Technologies, materials, superconducting-magnets and fuel-cycle sub-systems.
*Cost-effective and high-efficiency electrical-driver technologies.
*Novel fusion materials and advanced additive manufacturing.

In one project, the University of Houston will develop high-temperature superconducting magnets for compact fusion energy systems. The team will use advanced metal organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) processes to develop the devices.

Meanwhile, Phoenix LLC will develop a plasma-window technology to enable an ultra-high-flux neutron source. Click here for a full list of the projects.

Other major fusion projects are in the works. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project is the most notable effort.

In July, ITER began the assembly process of its reactor. But the project is over a decade behind schedule. The ITER members include China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. Europe is responsible for the largest portion of construction costs (45.6%); the remainder is shared equally by China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the U.S. (9.1% each).

Green hydrogen
The European Union is funding a project to accelerate the development of affordable green hydrogen.

The project is called CHANNEL (Cost-efficient Hydrogen production unit based on ANionN). The project will run for three years and will receive funding of around €2 million. The project includes Evonik, Shell, Enapter, Forschungszentrum Jülich, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and SINTEF.

Green hydrogen is a carbon-free fuel for industrial, transportation and other apps. “Green hydrogen is produced from water by electrolysis using electricity generated from renewable resources,” according to Evonik. “It is still much more expensive than conventional hydrogen, which is generally obtained from methane gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide.”

To enable green hydrogen, the industry requires a key component call an electrolyzer. This component uses electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen, according to the Fuel Cell Store, a technology site. Hydrogen produced from an electrolyzer enables hydrogen fuel cells, according to the site.

The electrolyzer is also an ion-conducting membrane. Evonik has developed an anion exchange membrane (AEM), enabling the electrolytic production of hydrogen.

Electrolysis with AEMs has several benefits compared with other electrolytic processes. “Our membrane could allow commercial realization of highly efficient and economically viable electrolysis technology,” says Oliver Conradi, who is responsible for membrane research at Creavis, Evonik’s strategic innovation unit. “The polymer chemistry behind this membrane is the key to efficient electrolysis. And we now hold that key.”

Next-gen nuclear
China has taken a big step toward the development of its first home-grown nuclear reactor.

China has begun to load the fuel assemblies into its reactor, called the Hualong One. The system is installed at China’s Fuqing nuclear power plant. “The unit–the first of two demonstration Hualong One reactors at the site in Fujian province–is scheduled to begin operating by the end of this year,” according to a report from World Nuclear News.

Nuclear energy provides carbon-free electricity. “Nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms in a reactor to heat water into steam, turn a turbine and generate electricity,” according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Developed by state-run China General Nuclear Power Group and the China National Nuclear Corp., the Hualong One is considered a third-generation nuclear reactor system. Others are also building next-generation reactors.

In the past, China relied on foreign nuclear technology. Now, it is developing its own technology.

In total, China has 48 nuclear power reactors in operation with 12 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). “Most of mainland China’s electricity is produced from fossil fuels, predominantly coal – 69% in 2019. Wind and solar capacity in 2019 was 21% of total installed generating capacity, but delivering under 9% of the electricity,” according to the WNA. “The impetus for nuclear power in China is increasingly due to air pollution from coal-fired plants.”

In 2019, China’s nuclear generation was 18% higher than 2018. Nuclear generation was 295 TWh, or 4.2% of the total of electricity produced in China, according to the China Electricity Council.

The U.S. is also developing nuclear energy. “The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity,” according to the WNA. “The U.S. has 98 operating nuclear power reactors in 30 states, operated by 30 different power companies. Following a 30-year period in which few new reactors were built, it is expected that two more new units will come online soon after 2020, these resulting from 16 licensed applications made since mid-2007 to build 24 new nuclear reactors.”

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