Elon Musk on Hydrogen Fuel: “It makes no sense”

General Motors Hydrogen 3“Except for the upper stage of a rocket, hydrogen makes no sense,” Elon Musk, the parent of the battery-powered Roadster and Model S said in an e-mail interview to ScienceFriday.

If there is anyone to ask about electric vehicles, it would be Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors. In fact, the second electric vehicle to come out of his company, the Model S, won the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year Award. Pure electric vehicles, such as the Tesla Model S, require recharging between driving sessions. This requires more time than a typical refueling session in a conventional vehicle, but it is also the price to pay for a greener ride.

Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity which can run an electric vehicle. Put these two technologies together, and you have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Toyota, BMW, Daimler, and others have put forth goals to have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road as soon as 2015. On the infrastructure side of things, researchers have been working to generate and deliver hydrogen safely and sufficient quantities to support a growing hydrogen fleet.

There’s only one problem with this, though, and as Elon Musk is quick to point out, “hydrogen makes no sense.” Hydrogen fuel may be clean in itself, but unless an efficient method to produce hydrogen can be found, then he’s right, it doesn’t make any sense. Part of the problem is supply, because hydrogen gas does not occur naturally, and so it needs to be separated from whatever molecule it is bonded with. There are various methods, including chemical, solar, and electrical, but none of these are very efficient.

The math, at the moment, isn’t in hydrogen’s favor. The only way to generate it is to put more energy into it than can ever be recovered from it. Electric vehicles are currently the cleanest and most efficient. I think we should be focusing on making the power grid cleaner to power electric vehicles cleaner. Even if hydrogen can be cleaner in production, say, using solar or chemical means, there’s still the inherent dangers with hydrogen storage [read: Hindenberg] and delivery. For the time being, I’m inclined to agree with Elon Musk.


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  • Greenlover

    Why would anyone with a real green heart say something like this about other clean opportunities? Be suspicious of anyone who does!
    No fuel cells aren’t perfect yet but at least you can drive 600k with it and fill up the tank in only 3 minutes. Instead of standing next to the road with your empty battery supercar and waiting at  least 30 minutes before you can drive an other 150k with it.  No more range anxiety!
    Hydrogen is a carrier (storage) of energy and will be produced cheaply anywhere by solar and bacteria. That’s why an infrastructure will start to appear.  
    New ways of storage and cheap fuel cells of hydrogen will come. Graphene, less Platinum and solidstate ( without pressure tanks) will be part of the solution.  Its lighter then just battery cars and less polluting to produce.  All car big manufacturers are currently working on Hydrogen vehicles.  It’s a huge step to leave behind 100 years of combustion technique development. Engine technique is the biggest distinctive feature between them. To let go of their earnings model and be part of a future where everything is insecure, where new car makers (like Tesla) can easily pop-up because electric is much simpler, shows guts.
    Everyone should see through Elon Musk’s cheap smear campaign to protect his interests. He makes wonderful cars but  for a small elite. Why? Long range heavy batteries are expensive almost as expensive as lighter fuel cell systems. But everything will change, lab research is promising.  To bad for Elon’s ego if he gambled on the wrong horse but any green solution is our future, embrace it don’t block it like the electric car 100 years ago.
    Time will tell but i’ll bet Tesla’s stock will drop before 2018 unless he is smart and incorporates the next generation fuel cells in his future models.
    Lucky he is too late to jeopardize the future but stop slowing it down!  😉
    No my English isn’t perfect but how is your Dutch?

  • trucker

    Vehicles which need to be plugged in will only ever appeal to a portion of the market unless you can solve the problem of how to charge a car which is parked on a street.
    Hydrogen cars do not have that problem. You could fill up at the station, and, if there is uptake on hydrogen cars your own hydrogen producing unit will be an option soon enough.

    • bnjroo

      @trucker You’re definitely right about convenience. Infrastructure is slowly coming around for electric vehicles, as electricity is fairly ubiquitous, while the charging stations are not. Hydrogen infrastructure, on the other hand, has a ways to go before the highways can take more hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

  • Pedro

    Please excuse me, but:
    – Does electricity occur naturally? 
    – Don’t we need more energy for electricity generation than that we can ever recover from it?
    “Electric vehicles are currently the cleanest and most efficient”, and will always be: nobody can deny it. If this were the key point, we all would drive electric vehicules today, don’t we? 
    Keep trying!

    • bnjroo

      there are a number of terms that need to be understood in order to realize a clean transportation future. energy, power, efficiency, emissions.
      sure, we could power everything with hydrogen, why not? but where would it come from? if hydrogen occurred naturally, I think that everyone would be on board with hydrogen power. the problem is that we need to generate it. we could generate hydrogen by hooking up an electrolytic cell to a coal plant, which would work, but would emit tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. the hydrogen vehicle itself would have zero emissions, but would indeed have a carbon footprint.
      i’m working on calculating the carbon emissions of solar cells, and i wonder what the numbers will look like if we tried to generate hydrogen using solar power. or simply stored electricity in batteries (another carbon footprint) for use in electric vehicles. it’s not a simple solution!

  • JohnBailo

    Battery enthusiasts such as Musk are like the Mad Doctors of the 1950s touting atomic energy as so safe you could run it in your laundry room.   Yet, batteries are failing in aviation and in cars that stall on the road if you place the radio and run an air conditioner.   Thus, we now have a Petition to the White House to fund the Hydrogen Economy, please sign and share:https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/build-hydrogen-economy/CGJXwTcX

    • bnjroo

      @JohnBailo every new technology has its growing pains, and there is no perfect solution. hydrogen, though, sounds more like perpetual motion than an energy source.

      • JohnBailo

        @bnjroo http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-events/news-archive/2013/february/acta-bringing-domestic-renewable-energy-storage-and-fuel-cells-to-ecoisland-for-up-to-32,000-homesActa S.p.A. has signed a letter of intent with Ecoisland Partnership CIC to offer a domestic renewable energy storage solution for the Isle of Wight. The Ecoisland project intends to make the Isle of Wight – an island of 140,500 inhabitants just off the south coast of England – self-sufficient in energy, water, food, and fuel by 2020. Acta will provide to the project a domestic renewable energy storage system that integrates solar panels with an Acta EL500 electrolyser, hydrogen storage cylinders, and a 5 kW Dantherm Power fuel cell.

        • bnjroo

          @JohnBailo [the link was broken] i was able to find it anyways, you accidentally started your comment too early. anyways, this seems fine for a stationary smart-grid system, but this post is specifically about hydrogen vehicles, and i would love to see if Wight integrates to include hydrogen or electric vehicles in their fleet.
          as far as backup power goes, though, i think the losses in hydrogen generation and compression outweigh the direct storage of electricity in batteries in this situation. changing energy forms is going to result in losses either way, as hydrogen or in the electrolyte.

  • Mark

    For detailed reasons check out
    Hydrogen is a very thoroughly discredited. There is absolutely no chance of it’s being a part of the solution to any energy issue.

    • Ted

      Robert Zubrin makes some pretty strong, well-backed arguments here, but have there been any technological improvements since 2007 that might tip the scales as development continues?

  • Ted

    There can never be a 100% efficient system of energy.  For example, in every electric power plant, the amount of energy used to generate the electricity is more than the equivalent electrical energy delivered from the plant; similarly, the amount of energy put into charging an electric battery is more than the amount of energy delivered by the battery.  One can hardly complain about the inherent losses in solar-powered electrolysis (to extract hydrogen from water) — there’s no harm in that inefficiency.

    • Ted

      I would like to say, however, that I love the Model S and I really hope Tesla takes off.  I just think that hydrogen is going to be another exciting option for clean, sustainable energy.  As for the inefficiencies of electric energy, there is of course also no harm in that loss if the energy is generated via clean sources.

    • bnjroo

      I have to say I agree with you on solar-powered electrolysis being inefficient, but who cares? it’s not like we wasted anything in that instance. same goes for solar anything really, which is really just a matter of W/ft2.
      I am thinking, though, that a solar-powered electric car has got to be more efficient than a solar-powered hydrogen car, considering all the losses generating hydrogen by electrolysis.

  • JimMcDade

    Duh, electric car advocates ignore the fact that 40% of the electricity in this country is produced by burning coal. Battery powered cars are going to be predominantly charged by that coal-fired/nuke powered grid. Electric cars are an environmental was, at best.  Musk has a major  financial interest in ignoring the facts, so we can discount him. Not only that, state legislatures and governors are understandably that by not paying gasoline taxes, the revenue to build and maintain highways (which comes from gas an diesel tax) will disappear. That’s why states are already moving to impose taxes on electric cars, which will make them even more expensive.

    • Mark

      Electric cars are so much more efficient that even recharged by coal plants they are still more energy efficient and lower net carbon emitters than IC cars. Check out the real numbers. Beyond that, consider that the grid is already in place (unlike the impossible fantasy of a hydrogen distribution system which is an engineering nightmare because of the nature of hydrogen which easily escapes, damages the metal pipelines etc.) as the grid gets cleaner…battery electric cars get cleaner.

      • bnjroo

        @JimMcDade actually, according to my research, http://jerewindependentresearch.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/electric-vehicle-carbon-dioxide-emissions/ there are a number of states where an electric vehicle indeed generates more carbon dioxide than the internal combustion engine. west virginia, for example, is driven by 98% coal, so, not a good idea there. on the other hand, vermont is mostly wind and hydro-electric easily the cleanest place in the US to run an EV (so far)
        lots of changes coming up, but I don’t think that hydrogen, even if solar powered, can actually be more efficient. perhaps cleaner, but not more efficient.

  • recluse1952

    Hydrogen is coming, it is just a matter of time. I can not believe all those who purposely thwart progress.

    • Mark

      @recluse1952 sorry recluse. Check out the technical details of hydrogen. At one time it looked promising but that turned out not to be true. It’s a technological deadend as energy transport and storage. Doesn’t mean fuel cells have no potential but not using hydrogen…they can use hydocarbons that are produced in a carbon neutral way for example…it’s just straight H2 that has no future.

    • bnjroo

      @recluse1952 fuel cells, if i recall correctly, can also be configured to use hydrocarbon-rich fuels, but i don’t think it’s efficient enough to pack into anything smaller than a cargo van.
      still, i think that it’d be more efficient to run an electric vehicle off solar power, than to run a hydrogen vehicle off solar-powered hydrogen generation. too many losses in the system. cleaner than the grid, yes, but more efficient? i’m not seeing it.