Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Published on February 24th, 2015 | by Christopher DeMorro


Elon Musk Shreds Hydrogen Fuel Cells, Again

February 24th, 2015 by  

Are electric drivetrains the way of the future, or are hydrogen fuel cells a better answer? That depends entirely on whom you ask, and if you were to ask someone from Toyota, they’d be sure to expound on the supposed merits of fuel cell vehicles. But ask Elon Musk, and he won’t mince words as he tells you exactly what he thinks of hydrogen “fool cells.”

At last month’s Automotive News World Congress, Musk was invited to speak to the assembled press and industry magnates to discuss Tesla Motors, as well as the auto industry as a whole. While Musk was pleased to see other automakers, like General Motors, getting more involved in building electric vehicles, he still takes issue with cars like the Toyota Mirai, which rely on inefficient fuel cells to store energy for transportation. In the past Musk has straight-up called fuel cell vehicles “bullshit“, and he has yet again made a compelling case for why he feels that way.

Transcribed from the video above:

“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. if you get that hydrogen from water, so you’re splitting H20, electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process…. if you say took a solar panel and use the energy from that to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to try to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure (or liquefy it) and then put it in a car and run a fuel-cell, it is about half the efficiency, it’s terrible. Why would you do that? It makes no sense.”

That doesn’t even bring into account the various problems building an all-new infrastructure, as well as the environmental impact of sourcing hydrogen from natural gas, currently the most popular way to produce vehicle-grade hydrogen. Of course, try explaining that to Toyota, which insists that the primary benefit of fuel cell vehicles over EVs, fast refilling, is well worth the inefficiencies and other shortcomings.

Elon Musk obviously has a different opinion though, and so far his argument makes a heckuva lot more sense if you ask me.

But what say you ardent hydrogen fuel cell defenders?

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About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • roseland67

    So, if I understand Toyota correctly,
    the main benefit of hydrogen vs. electric is fast fueling time?

    Does anyone, anywhere really truly believe that material science
    improvements will not make better, more efficient,
    more energy & power dense and safer batteries?
    Fast fueling time will be rendered moot in 10 years for all but the few
    who drive cross country.
    Charging tech will also adapt, but,
    by 2020, battery technology will be moving vehicles 400-500 miles/charge,
    99% of us simply do not drive that far every day.

    Tesla has it figured out, Elon should just smile, nod his head and let
    Toyota wander down the hydrogen road to oblivion.

  • Darko

    Fast refueling is important only if you refuel at the fueling stations on the road. If you refuel at home overnight, like with electric cars, you start your day always fully refueled. The speed of an occasional (EV) refuel on the road (only when you go long distance) is now much less important. This is not really a benefit of FC cars over EVs…

  • green.future

    Wow, such an objective and well researched article! Well done.

    >which rely on inefficient fuel cells to store energy for transportation.

    Fuel cells are not inefficient.

    “Like all electrics, fuel cells cars are also efficient. Internal combustion engines are often 15 percent efficient. That heat coming off your car engine? It’s waste heat, fuel you bought but didn’t use productively. Fuel cells can be 50 percent plus efficient.”

    http://www.forbes (dot) com/sites/michaelkanellos/2013/01/30/why-hydrogen-cars-could-still-be-the-future/

    >That doesn’t even bring into account the various problems building an all-new infrastructure

    Both BEVs and FCEVs need infrastructure to help expansion. BEVs are just a few years ahead at this point.

    >as well as the environmental impact of sourcing hydrogen from natural gas, currently the most popular way to produce vehicle-grade hydrogen.

    I always think this argument is funny since 40% of our electricity comes from coal, and another 45% comes from natural gas and nuclear. Both BEVs and FCEVs are currently getting most of their electricity from fossil fuel sources, and both will benefit from expanded renewable production.

    http://www.eia (dot) gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=427&t=3

    In addition, California requires 1/3 of its hydrogen for vehicles to be produced from renewable sources.

    http://energy (dot) gov/sites/prod/files/2014/03/f12/renewable_hydrogen_workshop_nov16_achtelik.pdf

    • Bataleon

      “Hydrogen is only a source of energy if it can be taken in its pure form and reacted with another chemical, such as oxygen. But all the hydrogen on Earth, except that in hydrocarbons, has already been oxidized, so none of it is available as fuel […] The trouble is that making hydrogen requires more energy than the hydrogen so produced can provide. Hydrogen, therefore, is not a source of energy. It simply is a carrier of energy. And it is, as we shall see, an extremely poor one.”

      – The Hydrogen Hoax

      • green.future

        Electricity is also an energy carrier. It is not an energy resource and must be produced from something else as well.

        Your flowchart does do a good job of explaining renewable electricity conversion for FCEVs and BEVs, for which BEVs are superior

        However, most renewable electricity produced is not used right away, in fact it is often curtailed. Rather than curtail that renewable electricity, it makes a lot more sense to store it as hydrogen fuel for later use, either in a FCEV or for a stationary fuel cell. This is taking electricity that would have been wasted and using it for fuel.

        Secondly, most electricity and most hydrogen is not generated from renewable electricity. Most electricity is generated from coal or natural gas, as I stated above. Generating electricity from these fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) is extremely inefficient, in the range of 34% according to EIA.

        http://www.eia (dot) gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=107&t=3

        In comparison, the efficiency of hydrogen production from steam methane reformation is 80 – 90%.

        http://www.h2alliance (dot) com/pdf/ie3002843.pdf

        • Terence Clark

          The energy mix question very much depends on where you are. In the US, that mix is currently quite poor, but better than China, Russia, the Middle East, and central Asia. But it’s worse than much of Europe, Japan, and Australia. What’s more, the energy mix is improving worldwide in most countries including the US, despite our sluggish progress overall. I don’t know that anyone has done a direct apples-to-apples comparison of fuel cells vs electrics, but the 80-90% number is mostly conjecture. Typical estimates come in more at 70-85%. And the reformation process still generates considerable carbon, sulfur and other pollutants depending on the source fuel that won’t disappear regardless of efficiency gains in electrical sourcing. Not to mention nitrates, which are rapidly becoming a serious pollution headache in places like my current home of Madison, WI.

  • Dig Deeper

    high temperature electrolysis from nuclear power plants has the potential to be above 50% efficient, which is major considering thermal power plants that create the majority of electricity to charge a model S operate between 25 and 60% efficiency.

    • falstaff77

      “high temperature electrolysis”

      I think you mean thermolysis? The use of high temperature to split water is thermolysis; electrolysis is another method to split water.


      • Dig Deeper

        Correct. I am playing devils advocate here, I know such a H2 production network is conjecture right now, but Musk is also out of line for his comments which I take exception to obviously.

        • falstaff77

          I think Musk is i) right and ii) incomplete. He’s right about the efficiency hit for using hydrogen as a transportation fuel – its unavoidable. He’s incomplete when attempts to end the discussion with something like, “Why would you do that? It makes no sense.”, as there are strong advantages to hydrogen (fast refueling, long range) that might make the energy losses worthwhile.

          • Dig Deeper

            Yea you hit the nail on the head with the train analogy. Efficiency is a factor for consumer adoption but not the driving force.

            And I am still skeptical about the upfront energy investment in making batteries for long range vehicles to begin with. I think BEVs may be the winner but I still find Musk to be a pompous individual. Just my opinion.

          • falstaff77

            “And I am still skeptical about the upfront energy investment in making batteries for long range vehicles to begin with.”

            Total LCA energy does impact CO2 emissions, but it won’t necessarily linearly correlate to the total cost to operate and own, as that’s a different cost and type of energy/fuel.

          • Terence Clark

            There have been precious few life cycle studies done in part because they are very difficult and can be expensive. But the one study I did see on the topic found that taking into account full life cycle, BEV’s are about the same in terms of total pollutants generated over life cycle as hybrids. That’s currently. Both are significantly better in terms of total pollutants (including, but not limited to, CO and CO2). However, the general trend in the US, as much as it sure doesn’t seem like it, is toward lower pollution energy generation. So over even a fairly short time frame the equation tips toward BEV’s as the better bet.

            What’s more, in western Europe, Japan, Australia, and a few other places, the energy mix is already decidedly tipped toward BEV’s as the more environmentally friendly option. In China, Russia, the Middle East, and central Asia, hybrids are actually more environmentally friendly in terms of current energy mix.

            The study I read didn’t include fuel cells so I can’t speak to them. And given the complexities of cradle to grave studies, and the fact that I’m a programmer and not a specialist on vehicle or manufacturing emissions, I couldn’t even venture an educated guess as to what fuel cells may be.

          • Dig Deeper

            Yes but which vehicle in specific was the BEV in the study you refer to?

            I’m guessing it was the leaf, which has a 24 kWh battery pack in comparison to at least 60kWh which will be needed for mass adoption. The battery being the most crucial component I’m not convinced the environmental benefit of the long range BEV is nearly as good as advertised, and decoupling the upstream processes for making BEVs from CO2 is very challenging.

            I don’t know the life cycle emissions (cradle to grave) of fuel cells either, though my educated guess is they are less cumbersome upstream and downstream to deal with. I’m sure we will find out within the next year.

            there are as many legitimate parhways for hydrogen production to become cleaner as there are for electrical production, and H2 has the advantage of providing valuable temporal flexibility.

            At this point I’m not sure just how serious Toyota and Japan are about fuel cells, but we will find out.

  • someguy47

    Musk is probably right, but it seems to me that one of the central problems with electricity in general is storage. It would be nice, for instance, to store solar power for use at night. So there may be a place in the chain for storage in the form of Hydrogen, but as Musk points out, it is rather inefficient for use in cars.

    • George Dixon Adams

      Look up the Tesla “Home Battery” going into production.


      Could be pretty revolutionary.

      • shrike1978

        Only when the price per amp-hour goes down. At the current prices, you won’t pay for the battery system by the end of the expected lifespan.

        • George Dixon Adams

          The Tesla Gigafactory is anticipating reducing price per kwh by around 30% upon full implementation. Over 10 years it expects battery costs to drop by about 50% per kwh. That could possibly bring Tesla’s battery storage units below the $100 per kwh price point that analysts believe will make battery storage more cost efficient than fossil fuels.

          Admittedly this is all speculation and early adopters will not see the benefits of this new tech in the initial lifetime of their systems. Second and Third generation battery storage systems will likely be whats revolutionary for the average consumer.

          Of course my grand hope and delusion is that by that time we’ll have efficient fusion generators running that will make all of this a moot point. Highly unlikely but a boy can dream.

          • shrike1978

            I’m completely with you. The first generation PowerWall is occupying the same market segment as the Tesla Roadster. The early adopters are paying the R&D costs for the later affordable models. If it continues following the same model as the automotive division, generation 2 will break even, and then we’ll see the real revolution happening in generation 3, and 10 years is probably a reasonable time frame for that to happen.

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  • Brian

    First, let’s clean up terms; fuel cell cars ARE electric drivetrains, the difference is purely one of energy storage. From a system perspective, a fuel-cell is simply a chemically rechargeable battery. Second, while it is useful to compare today’s state of the art, it is more interesting to look at what is in the pipeline for energy storage / generation technologies. See http://www.anl.gov/energy/batteries-and-energy-storage for example. Third, solar can be used to either split water, or charge batteries, but, as pointed out by others here, the current sources of H2 produce a lot of CO2 and other nasty byproducts. Finally, are we really going to build a national hydrogen infrastructure, when the idea of a personal vehicle will probably be obsolete in 25 years anyway?

  • Wiggletoes

    Fuel cell Designers have overcome all the hydrogen problems discussed with flow batteries which are fuel cells.

    • paulblair

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but all evidence points to nanoFlowcell batteries being at best, unproven vaporware and at worst, as outright scam.



      • Wiggletoes
        • paulblair

          Yes, Flow batteries are real, but they do not contain near the energy density of regular lithium ion batteries, making them completely unsuitable for use in EVs . The maker of these “nanoFlow” batteries, which supposedly have a much higher energy density than Lion batteries, has never demonstrated the technology to a third party. The maker also has a documented history of coming up with fake tech breakthroughs and ripping off investors.

          • Wiggletoes

            Just today the announcement of a flow battery with twice the energy density http://www.nanowerk.com/news2/green/newsid=39176.php and that’s 70% that of lithium-ion but they don’t catch on fire.

          • paulblair

            You are still not getting it. The maker of the Quant is claiming 1000x (ONE THOUSAND TIMES) the energy density of current lithium batteries.

          • paulblair

            Now you’re talking fuel cells? I thought you were talking about flow batteries? We know that fuel cells can work and last. The problem is that they are not in any way economical, because Hydrogen costs a ton of money to produce if you want to produce it cleanly. The only way to produce it economically is to break down hydrocarbons, of which the byproduct is carbon, which completely defeats the purpose.

          • Wiggletoes

            Its a flow battery fuel cell. Flow battery is another type fuel cell. GE working on still another type FC that can be fueled directly by cellulosic ethanol which operates at 95% efficiency yielding 100% renewable power but a generous carbon tax would be necessary to make cost effective. Hydrogen currently used to make gasoline but if used instead in PEM fuel cell cars (Toyota) the crude would no longer be necessary.

          • Wiggletoes

            My point is that a fuel cell is that which produces the power in flow batteries. Hydrogen is produced in refineries to make gasoline by reforming gasoline. That was the breakthrough that allow gasoline to become the current transportation fuel for cars. Prior to that it was ethanol.

          • Wiggletoes

            PNNL calculated new flow battery theoretically could have much greater energy density than standard lithium iron http://www.greencarcongress.com/2015/02/20150226-pnnl.html .

  • DanialThom

    Why not just use Nat gas?

    • shrike1978

      Because that doesn’t get away from the fundamental problem of using fossil fuels. Natural gas is non-renewable and contributes to CO2 emissions and other pollutants. These are the exact problems that we are trying to get away from.

      • DanialThom

        Well if you’ve been brainwashed into that kind of thinking then you can’t be reasoned with. “renewable energy” is a silly canard. We have more than enough Nat Gas to get to the next energy source, which is 20 years away.Its cheap, abundant and cleaner than what we use now.

        You need real energy to make so-called renewable. smart people learn; ethanol has been a disaster. We take millions of acres of food-producing farmland to make fuel, and people in poor countries dont have enough corn to eat, food prices go up because livestock feed skyrockets, and we have inefficient fuel that ruins our cars.

        The greenie stupidity must stop.

        CO2 is not a pollutant. You just sound ridiculous.

        • shrike1978

          When did I ever mention ethanol? Ethanol is a disaster. We do not have the proper crops in the US to make it work. And while its cleaner in some ways, it releases more ozone precursors than gasoline.

          Natural gas pollutes. It releases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulates. I don’t want to live in smog the rest of my life. Wind, solar, and nuclear must replace our fossil fuel infrastructure in the long run. If you’re so caught up about the “greenie stupidity” to see it from an environmental perspective, maybe you can at least see it from a cost perspective. Long-term power-per-watt upkeep costs are far lower with clean tech.

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