DOW on Route to Making Chemicals Using Small Modular Reactors

clean hydrogen tank

(Credit: Pixabay)

by | May 25, 2023

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clean hydrogen tank

(Credit: Pixabay)

When Dow and X-energy inked an agreement to develop an advanced nuclear reactor at one of Dow’s sites along the Gulf Coast, it was a big deal – a technology the two will license to other industrial customers. 

Dow will work with X-energy to build the so-called Xe-100 high-temperature gas-cooled reactor to make chemical compounds. The Generation IV reactors are best known for electricity generation. But they can also be used by industry. Because they operate at 800 degrees Celsius, they can process chemicals, desalinate ocean water, and produce clean hydrogen for electricity and transportation. They can even replace shuttered coal plants, restoring economic health to devastated regions of the country.

“The utilization of X-energy’s fourth generation nuclear technology will enable Dow to take a major step in reducing our carbon emissions while delivering lower carbon footprint products to our customers and society,” said Jim Fitterling, Dow’s chief executive, in a release. “The collaboration with X-energy and the DOE will serve as a leading example of how the industrial sector can safely, effectively, and affordably decarbonize.”

The companies chose a Union Carbide site in Calhoun County, Texas, and they expect the project to go live in 2030. Dow is also taking a minority ownership position in X-energy. Each modular reactor can generate 80 megawatts. But they can be stacked together to produce 320 megawatts, providing clean, reliable, and safe baseload power to support electricity systems or industrial applications.

Existing U.S. nuclear reactors are the second generation, although Southern Company has third-generation reactors developed by Westinghouse. The small modular reactors are the fourth generation, producing more electricity at less cost. The third and fourth generations will automatically shut off during an emergency.

Right-sized reactors are anything from 50 MW to 300 MW. But the modules can be combined to form a 1 gigawatt plant.

Currently, 99% of the world’s hydrogen production has been from fossil fuels. That’s called grey hydrogen. The objective is to get to green hydrogen, whereby solar panels or wind turbines produce electricity using an electrolyzer. But the heat and electricity from nuclear energy can also split the water molecule to produce hydrogen — which refines oil, produces steel, and makes chemicals.

Supports ‘Broad Industrial Applications’

X-energy’s HTGR technology can support broad industrial applications through its high-temperature heat and steam output. The U.S. Department of Energy picked X-energy to receive up to $1.2 billion to develop, license, build, and demonstrate an advanced operational reactor and fuel fabrication facility by the decade’s end.

“From the beginning to the end of the supply chain, our technology can supply both power and heat to businesses in most sectors of the economy to help limit their carbon footprint. We are thrilled to work with Dow to deliver a successful project and illustrate the broad, highly flexible applications of X-energy’s proprietary nuclear energy technology,” said X-energy CEO J. Clay Sell.

Such a process is emissions-free and much needed. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, electric power caused 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while industrial operations accounted for 24%. Transportation made up 27%, all in 2020. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that the use of nuclear energy will need to double by 2050 to meet global climate goals.

According to a story in Power magazine, Dow chose a 4,700 acre an hour northeast of Corpus Christi because it makes more than 4 million pounds of materials annually – used across food packaging, wire, and cable installation and the pharmaceutical industry. The project will cut 440,00 tons of CO2 yearly compared to gas turbines.

“Dow expects to retire these turbines early next decade,” Dow’s North America Business Director of Energy & Climate Kreshka Young told POWER, adding that Dow will “evaluate options for the sale of any excess power produced.” 

“(E)very site has a unique profile of power and steam requirements. As such, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to supplying Dow’s sites,” added Young. “Instead, a broad portfolio of options, including conventional power and steam technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, clean hydrogen, and renewables, in addition to nuclear, will be required to optimize Dow’s Path to Zero.”

The site selection follows an announcement by Westingtonhouse Electric Company to design a small modular reactor – 300 MW-equivalent modules that have a passive safety feature. It’s design will be done in 2027, telling CNBC that it will cost about $1 billion to build.

Industrial ‘Customers Will Sign Up in Droves’ 

Meantime, TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy launched the Natrium project in September 2020 – a small modular reactor that they hope to commercialize by 2030. They are now testing the technology, along with Berkshire Hathaway’s PacifiCorp. The Natrium reactors are purportedly able to firm up wind and solar power. In other words, it would be a clean backup generator.

To be sure, some obstacles are on the way. The only supplier of the required fuel – HALEU – is the Russian state-owned company TENEX – which is undesirable under today’s circumstances. But federal incentives could catalyze domestic production of the fuel and create an enduring value chain. Otherwise, Australia, Canada, and Kazakhstan also provide it.

At the same time, the cost of building those advanced nuclear reactors is challenging to quantify. More certainty will come after developers start designing plants and modeling expenses.

“Electricity is the low-hanging fruit,” said Patrick White, project manager for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, in a talk with this writer. “We have not yet integrated nuclear energy with large chemical facilities. There may be some hiccups and things to work through. But we will see the first reactors for industrial applications at the end of the decade. The goal is decarbonization.”

Companies will sign up in droves after building the fourth and fifth reactors, he concludes – which is the aspiration that Dow and X-energy have.

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