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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