A car is fueled with hydrogen at the Frankfurt Auto Show IAA in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on September 13, 2017.
TOBIAS SCHWARZ | AFP | Getty Images
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a history of expressing strong opinions about hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells.
A few years ago, when the subject came up during a discussion with reporters at the Automotive News World Congress, the billionaire and electric vehicle magnate described hydrogen fuel cells as “extremely silly.”
“It’s just very difficult … to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car,” Musk said. “The best-case hydrogen fuel cell doesn’t win against the current case batteries, so then, obviously … it doesn’t make sense,” he added later.
“That will become apparent in the next few years. There’s … no reason for us to have this debate, I’ve said … my piece on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by, I don’t know what more to say.”
In the time since those remarks, Musk’s views don’t seem to have changed much, if at all. In June 2020 he tweeted “fuel cells = fool sells,” adding in July of that year: “hydrogen fool sells make no sense.”
First things first: What underpins the tech Musk seems so skeptical of?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — which are also known as fuel cell electric vehicles — as being “similar to electric vehicles … in that they use an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine to power the wheels.”
The key difference is that electric vehicles have batteries that need to be charged by plugging the vehicle into a charging point. Fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, utilize hydrogen gas and, according to the EPA, “generate their electricity onboard.”
Put simply, with fuel cells, hydrogen gas from a tank mixes with oxygen, producing electricity.
A fuel cell electric vehicle emits “only water vapor and warm air”, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center says.
A range of views
Musk is not alone when it comes to being unconvinced about the use of hydrogen in cars.
In February of this year, Herbert Diess, the CEO of German automotive powerhouse Volkswagen Group, weighed in on the subject.
“It’s time for politicians to accept science,” he tweeted. “Green hydrogen is needed for steel, chemical, aero … and should not end up in cars. Far too expensive, inefficient, slow and difficult to rollout and transport. After all: no #hydrogen cars in sight.”
Musk and Diess are two high-profile figures at the helm of major companies with huge influence and reach. What they say carries weight. It would appear, however, that their views aren’t shared by everyone in the autos sector.
To date, firms including Toyota and Hyundai have produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, while smaller manufacturers such as Riversimple are also working on hydrogen-powered cars.
In June, the BMW Group said it had started to test vehicles that use a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain, with the company describing hydrogen fuel cell tech as having the “long term potential to supplement internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrid systems and battery-electric vehicles.”
Although these products obviously don’t account for the bulk of car sales at this moment in time — Riversimple won’t actually sell its cars, offering them on a subscription service instead — that such a range of companies are working on fuel-cell offerings at all shows some see potential in the technology.
“Fuel cell cars will certainly play a part in decarbonizing transport,” a spokesperson for Toyota told CNBC.
“As and when refueling infrastructure expands, they will offer a convenient alternative form of electrified transport over a fully electric BEV [battery-powered electric vehicles],” they said.
Toyota viewed hydrogen “as an alternative to fossil fuels in all manner of settings, including heating, lighting, haulage, mass transit and heavy industry,” the spokesperson said.
“The range of hydrogen applications will increase, enabling cheaper, more efficient power supply and we’ll increasingly see 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 viewpoint.
Fuel cell electric vehicles and hydrogen energy, the FCHEA said, offered customers “a zero-emission option with performance they expect and no change to daily routines — long range, quick refueling, and the ability to scale to larger platforms without adding restrictive weight and size.”
The FCHEA went on to say there was a “tremendous opportunity for fuel cell electric cars and fuel cell-powered material handling vehicles.”
“Also, given the limitations of battery weight and recharging for long haul trucking, a significant opportunity also exists for medium- and heavy-duty delivery vans, trucks, buses, trains, and planes,” it said.
Indeed, as governments around the world attempt to develop low and zero emission transportation systems, the notion of using hydrogen fuel cells in larger vehicles is starting to be explored by a broad range of companies.
In a recent interview with CNBC, the CEO of Daimler Truck was asked about the debate between battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cells. Balance, Martin Daum argued, was key.
“We go for both, because both … make sense,” he said, going on to explain how different technologies would be appropriate in different scenarios.
“In general, you can say: If you go to city delivery where you need lower amounts of energy in there, you can charge overnight in a depot, then it’s certainly battery electric,” Daum said.
“But the moment you’re on the road, the moment you go from Stockholm to Barcelona … in my opinion, you need something which you can transport better and where you can refuel better and that is ultimately H2.”
“The ruling is not out, but I think it’s too risky for a company our size to go with just one technology.”
Daum’s comments on fuel cells touch upon the idea that they could, eventually, find a home in heavier forms of transport covering long distances, hauling cargo and, in some cases, ferrying people from one destination to another.
He’s not alone in taking this view. The European transport giant Alstom, for instance, 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 commercial hydrogen-electric flights between London and Rotterdam were announced in October, with those behind the project hoping it will take to the skies in 2024.
In construction, JCB, a major player in the sector, said last year that it had developed an excavator “powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.”
Weighing 20 metric tons, the company said the vehicle had been tested for over 12 months, adding that the “only emission from the exhaust is water.”
While there is a sense of excitement about the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology in a variety of applications, the path to any mass rollout may not necessarily be a smooth one.
Earlier this year, Honda ceased production of its Clarity plug-in hybrid and fuel cell models, although the company did make a point of saying that fuel cell electric vehicles would “play a key role in our zero-emissions strategy.”
Elsewhere, the U.S. government has cited a number of challenges. These range from the durability and reliability of fuel cells to vehicle cost.
“The current infrastructure for producing and getting hydrogen to consumers cannot yet support the widespread adoption of FCVs,” it adds.
In February 2020, Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment hammered home just how much competition hydrogen would face in the transportation sector.
T&E made the point that green hydrogen — which is produced using renewables — wouldn’t only have to “compete with grey and blue hydrogen,” which are produced using fossil fuels. “It will compete with petrol, diesel, marine fuel oil, kerosene and, of course, electricity,” T&E said.
“Wherever batteries are a practical solution — cars; vans; urban, regional and perhaps long-haul trucks; ferries — hydrogen will face an uphill struggle because of its lower efficiency and, as a result, much higher fuel costs.”
Bridging the gap between battery electric and fuel cell vehicles will be a huge task, as the International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook 2021 notes.
According to that report, registrations of fuel cell electric vehicles “remain three orders of magnitude lower than EVs as hydrogen refuelling stations … are not widely available and unlike EVs cannot be charged at home.”
The race to dominate the low and zero emission future of 21st-century transportation is underway.
When it comes to cars, battery electric vehicles are in a strong position with firms such as Tesla leading the charge, but the road to success is never a straight one. Watch this space.