Researchers at a government nuclear laboratory and a ceramics company in Salt Lake City say they have found a way to produce pure hydrogen with far less energy than other methods.

This raises the possibility of using nuclear power to indirectly wean the transportation system from its dependence on oil.

The development would move the country closer to the Energy Department’s goal of a “hydrogen economy,” in which hydrogen would be created through a variety of means, and would be consumed by devices called fuel cells, to make electricity to run cars and for other purposes. Experts cite three big roadblocks to a hydrogen economy: manufacturing hydrogen cleanly and at low cost, finding a way to ship it and store it on the vehicles that use it, and reducing the astronomical price of fuel cells.

“This is a breakthrough in the first part,” said J. Stephen Herring, a consulting engineer at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which plans to announce the development on Monday with Cerametec Inc. of Salt Lake City.

The developers also said the hydrogen could be used by oil companies to stretch oil supplies even without solving the fuel cell and transportation problems.

Mr. Herring said the experimental work showed the “highest-known production rate of hydrogen by high-temperature electrolysis.”

But the plan requires the building of a new kind of nuclear reactor, at a time when the United States is not even building conventional reactors. And the cost estimates are uncertain.

The heart of the plan is an improvement on the most convenient way to make hydrogen, which is to run electric current through water, splitting the H2O molecule into hydrogen and oxygen. This process, called electrolysis, now has a drawback: if the electricity comes from coal, which is the biggest source of power in this country, then the energy value of the ingredients – the amount of energy given off when the fuel is burned – is three and a half to four times larger than the energy value of the product. Also, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions increase when the additional coal is burned.

Hydrogen can also be made by mixing steam with natural gas and breaking apart both molecules, but the price of natural gas is rising rapidly.

More here.