Automobiles running on hydrogen fuel cells and water purified from the sea are part of an unfolding future, and experts think nuclear energy can play a bigger role. Specialists are meeting this month in Japan at an international symposium keyed to applications of nuclear energy beyond the production of electricity.
Tapping the world´s seas to produce freshwater for cities and towns is nothing new. But it´s expensive, and costs are a prime factor. Plants to desalt water require a lot of energy, and countries with desalination units or interested in them are looking more closely at nuclear plants to provide the electrical energy they need. Argentina, Canada, China, Egypt, France, India, Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and the USA are among countries working cooperatively through the IAEA on research and development projects.
The technology of desalination - or desalting seawater - has grown over the past half century, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where freshwater is scarce. Nearly 40 million cubic metres of desalted water are produced each day worldwide. The facilities are energy intensive, and usually draw the steam or electricity they need from conventional fossil-fueled plants. But as environmental concerns grow over greenhouse gas emissions and water needs rise, other options are sought. About two-thirds of the world's population is projected to face shortages of clean freshwater over the coming decades.
The technology of coupling nuclear energy and desalination plants already has taken hold in Japan and Kazakhstan, where commercial facilities have been operating since the 1970s. India is among countries seeking to expand the base of national and international experience through a demonstration plant it is building at Kalpakkam in the southeast of the country.
Another application drawing high interest is nuclear power to produce hydrogen, increasingly seen as an alternative to oil and gasoline for the transportation sector. Some options being considered include the construction of centralized clusters of advanced nuclear power plants feeding high-temperature steam to hydrogen production units. Other options focus on distributed hydrogen systems. Today most commercial hydrogen is produced from water using a process called electrolysis. Research is heavily focused on other methods, including advanced systems producing very hot heat and steam.
The International Conference on Non-Electric Applications of Nuclear Power: Seawater Desalination, Hydrogen Production and other Industrial Applications will be held in Oarai, Japan, from 16-19 April 2007.