A car is powered by hydrogen at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show in Frankfurt Main, Germany, September 13, 2017.
TOBIAS SCHWARZ | AFP | Getty Images
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is used to expressing strong opinions on hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells.
A few years ago, when the topic was brought up in a discussion with reporters at the Automotive News World Congress, the billionaire and electric vehicle mogul described hydrogen fuel cells as “extremely stupid.”
“It’s just really hard… to make hydrogen, store it, and use it in a car,” Musk said. “The best hydrogen fuel cell doesn’t win against the batteries in the current case, so obviously… that doesn’t make sense,” he later added.
“It will become evident in the next few years. There is… no reason for us to have this debate, I said… my article on this, it will be super evident over time, I don’t know what more to to say.”
Since these remarks, Musk’s opinions don’t seem to have changed much, if at all. In June 2020 he tweeted “Fuel cells = fools sell” adding in July of the same year: “Crazy hydrogen sales make no sense.”
First up: what is behind the technology that Musk seems so skeptical of?
The US Environmental Protection Agency describes hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, also known as fuel cell electric vehicles, as “similar to electric vehicles … in that they use an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine to power the wheels ”.
The main difference is that electric vehicles have batteries that must be recharged by plugging the vehicle into a charging station. Fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, use hydrogen gas and, according to the EPA, “generate their electricity on board.”
Simply put, with fuel cells, hydrogen gas in a tank mixes with oxygen, producing electricity.
A fuel cell electric vehicle emits “only water vapor and hot air,” according to the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.
A range of views
Musk isn’t the only one not convinced of the use of hydrogen in cars.
In February this year, Herbert Diess, CEO of the German Automotive Powerhouse Volkswagen Group, looked into the subject.
“It’s time for politicians to embrace science,” he tweeted. “Green hydrogen is necessary for steel, chemicals, aeronautics… and should not be found in cars. Far too expensive, inefficient, slow, and difficult to deploy and transport. After all: no hydrogen cars in sight. “
Musk and Diess are two leading personalities at the helm of great companies with enormous influence and reach. What they say carries weight. It would appear, however, that their views are not shared by everyone in the automotive industry.
To date, companies such as Toyota and Hyundai have produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, while smaller manufacturers such as Riversimple are also working on hydrogen cars.
In June, the BMW Group said it had started testing vehicles using a hydrogen fuel cell transmission, with the company describing hydrogen fuel cell technology as having “the long-term potential to supplement internal combustion engines. , rechargeable hybrid systems and the battery. electric vehicles. “
While these products obviously don’t represent the bulk of car sales at the moment – Riversimple won’t actually sell its cars, instead offering them on a subscription service – that such a range of companies are working on fuel cell offerings. at all shows that some see the potential of technology.
“Fuel cell cars will certainly play a role in decarbonizing transportation,” a Toyota spokesperson told CNBC.
“As the refueling infrastructure develops, they will offer a convenient alternative form of electrified transport on a fully electric BEV. [battery-powered electric vehicles],” they said.
Toyota viewed hydrogen “as an alternative to fossil fuels in all kinds of settings, including heating, lighting, transportation, mass transit and heavy industry,” the spokesperson said.
“The range of hydrogen applications will increase, allowing cheaper and more efficient power supply and we will see more and more hydrogen powering cars, buses, trains and trucks,” they added.
In a statement sent to CNBC, the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association expressed a similar point of view.
Fuel cell electric vehicles and hydrogen power, FCHEA said, offered customers “a zero emission option with the performance they expect and no change to daily routines – long range, fast refueling and the ability to refuel. to evolve to larger platforms without adding weight and size. “
The FCHEA went on to say that there was “a tremendous opportunity for fuel cell electric cars and fuel cell material handling vehicles.”
“In addition, given the limitations of battery weight and recharging for long-haul trucking, a significant opportunity also exists for medium and heavy vans, trucks, buses, trains and delivery planes,” he said. he declares.
Indeed, as governments around the world attempt to develop low-emission, zero-emission transportation systems, the idea of using hydrogen fuel cells in larger vehicles is beginning to be explored by a wide range. companies.
In a recent interview with CNBC, the CEO of Daimler Truck was asked about the debate between electric and hydrogen fuel cells. Balance, according to Martin Daum, was the key.
“We go for both, because both… make sense,” he said, then explaining how different technologies would be appropriate in different scenarios.
“In general you can say: if you go to city delivery where you need less power, you can charge at night in a depot, then it’s definitely an electric battery,” Daum said.
“But the moment you are on the road, the moment you go from Stockholm to Barcelona… in my opinion you need something that you can transport better and where you can refuel better and that is ultimately H2. . “
“The decision is not made, but I think it is too risky for a company of our size to use just one technology.”
Daum’s comments on fuel cells raise the idea that they may eventually find a place in heavier means of transport covering long distances, carrying goods and, in some cases, carrying people from one destination to another.
He is not the only one to take this point of view. European transport giant Alstom, for example, has developed the Coradia iLint, which it describes as “the world’s first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell”.
In aviation, plans to operate hydrogen-electric commercial flights between London and Rotterdam were announced in October, with the project’s authors hoping it will take off in 2024.
In the construction industry, JCB, a major player in the sector, said last year that it had developed an excavator “powered by a hydrogen fuel cell”.
Weighing 20 tonnes, the company said the vehicle had been tested for more than 12 months, adding that “the only emission from the exhaust gases is water.”
While there is a sense of excitement about using hydrogen fuel cell technology in a variety of applications, the path to mass deployment may not necessarily be easy.
Earlier this year, Honda ceased production of its Clarity plug-in hybrid and fuel cell models, although the company was keen to say that fuel cell electric vehicles “will play a key role in our zero emissions strategy.”
Elsewhere, the US government has cited a number of challenges. These range from the durability and reliability of fuel cells to the cost of the vehicle.
“The current infrastructure for producing and delivering hydrogen to consumers cannot yet support the widespread adoption of FCVs,” he adds.
In February 2020, the Brussels campaign group Transport and Environment underlined the extent to which hydrogen would face competition in the transport sector.
T&E pointed out that green hydrogen – which is produced using renewable energy – would not just have to “compete with gray and blue hydrogen,” which are produced using fossil fuels. “It will compete with gasoline, diesel, marine fuel, kerosene and, of course, electricity,” T&E said.
“Wherever batteries are a practical solution – cars; vans; urban, regional and possibly long-haul trucks; ferries – Hydrogen will face a tough fight due to its lower efficiency and, as a result, much higher fuel costs. “
Bridging the gap between battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles will be a huge task, as the International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook 2021 notes.
According to this report, registrations of fuel cell electric vehicles “remain three orders of magnitude lower than those of electric vehicles because hydrogen refueling stations … are not widely available and, unlike electric vehicles, cannot be recharged at home “.
The race to dominate the low-emission, zero-emission future of 21st century transportation is on.
When it comes to cars, battery-electric vehicles are in a strong position with companies like Tesla leading the way, but the road to success is never straight. Watch this place.