It’s Time For Elon Musk To Admit The Significance Of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Co-founder and CEO of HyPoint, the company developing zero-carbon emission hydrogen fuel cell systems for aviation and urban air mobility.

“Fuel cells = fool sells,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on June 10. “Staggeringly dumb,” he continued. As CNBC noted, Musk has previously “dismissed hydrogen fuel cells as ‘mind-bogglingly stupid.'” He has also “called them ‘fool cells,’ a ‘load of rubbish,’ and told Tesla shareholders at an annual meeting years ago that ‘success is simply not possible.'”

Clearly, Musk is not a fan of hydrogen fuel cells — at least not for use in cars — which makes sense since he built the Tesla empire on lithium-ion batteries. 

The debate between lithium-ion and hydrogen has raged for decades. Both can be used as clean, zero-emission alternatives to fossil fuels, but while hydrogen fuel cells have been around much longer (indeed, it is what NASA used to put men on the moon in 1969), it was lithium-ion batteries that ultimately proved much easier to commercialize, particularly for use in passenger cars.

Part of that is because hydrogen fuel cells are more complex; they generate energy by creating and harnessing chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen while leaving water vapor as the only emission. And while hydrogen is lightweight, incredibly efficient and the most abundant resource in the universe, it currently takes a lot of energy to harness hydrogen.

“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It’s not a source of energy,” Musk said at a 2015 press conference. “Electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process. If you took a solar panel and used the energy from that solar panel to just charge your battery pack directly compared to trying 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.”

In some ways, Musk is right. For passenger cars, the economics for hydrogen just aren’t there yet, nor is the infrastructure. However, he’s missing the ways in which hydrogen fuel cells fit into the bigger picture wherein the economics do make sense — greening the electrical grid and zero-emission aviation, trucking, shipping, urban air mobility, space travel and more.

Governments and leaders around the world are rallying behind hydrogen as a key component to their plans for addressing climate change, not just in the transportation sector but across their entire energy grid. Consider that the European Commission announced its Hydrogen Strategy for a climate-neutral Europe in which it said that hydrogen is “an important part of the solution to meet the 2050 climate neutrality goal of the European Green Deal.” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion clean energy plan that includes renewable hydrogen technology innovation. And Boris Johnson announced 335 million pounds ($446 million) in funding to help drive down greenhouse gas emissions, including the development of hydrogen fuel. Those announcements were made just within the last six months.

Meanwhile, at Tesla’s Battery Day in September, Musk acknowledged that his vision for lithium-ion batteries is more complicated than he expected, on a longer technological timetable and not scalable enough to solve the world’s most pressing climate problems. Yet surprisingly, in spite of an unprecedented surge in international interest, there was no mention of the clearest solution for zero-emission energy that would meet his own climate goals: hydrogen.

The technology for zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells for use in transportation and other industries isn’t a pipe dream — it already exists. Though you might not know it, hydrogen-powered trains, trucks, cars, airplanes and ships are already out in the wild. CNBC noted that “there are dozens of fuel cell buses in use or planned in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts, as well as California” and that “more than 23,000 fuel cell-powered forklifts in operation at warehouses and distribution centers across the U.S. in more than 40 states, including at Amazon and Walmart facilities.”

That’s just the beginning. The future of urban air mobility (flying cars, air taxis and advanced drones) can only run on hydrogen fuel due to the specific power and energy density that it offers. Carbon-based fuels are simply too heavy, and batteries die too quickly to get small vehicles off the ground. NASA knew that more than 50 years ago, and we’re just now commercializing it for more widespread use. Air taxi developers, including Uber Elevate (and hundreds more), are racing to get zero-emission urban air mobility vehicles off the ground by using lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or a combination of both.

In the end, in spite of a relatively slow start, many analysts expect that the hydrogen energy market will take off, driven by both private and public investment around the world. I believe it would behoove Musk — and all of us — if he took another look at hydrogen if for no other reason than to stay true to his mission of combating climate change. Critically, he could help push the hydrogen fuel cell market forward by encouraging responsible development and driving investment.

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