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Transportation Power

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: Fuel Cells Are 'So Bull@%!#' 479

Posted by Soulskill
from the oh-the-humanity dept.
Frosty P sends this quote from AutoblogGreen: "Elon Musk is unafraid to speak his mind. Whether he's talking about other players in the electric vehicle space or sub-par reporting from The New York Times, this is a man with few filters. Musk says that fuel cells are not part of the solution that electric vehicles offer for giving up the hydrocarbon addiction. After commenting that the only reason some automakers are pursuing hydrogen technology is for marketing purposes, that lithium batteries are superior mass- and volume-wise for a given range, and that fuel cells are too expensive, Musk capped it all off with the safety issue. 'Oh god, a fuel cell is so bull@%!#,' Musk said. 'Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas. You know, it's suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars,' he said."
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk: Fuel Cells Are 'So Bull@%!#'

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  • by clonehappy (655530) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:43PM (#45216177)

    In many regards, but especially to Mr. Musk's business model.

    • by durrr (1316311) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:47PM (#45216245)

      Hydrogen gas is quite safe, if a tank is just punctured, it will remove itself harmlessly from the vicinity.
      If the tank is ruptured and the gas set on fire, you might set a tree overhang on fire, but the car will avoid most of the damage. Unlike gas that pools under the car in a manner perfect for human BBQ.

      • by lesincompetent (2836253) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:52PM (#45216345)

        Hydrogen gas is quite safe, if a tank is just punctured, it will remove itself harmlessly from the vicinity. If the tank is ruptured and the gas set on fire, you might set a tree overhang on fire, but the car will avoid most of the damage. Unlike gas that pools under the car in a manner perfect for human BBQ.

        This message is brought to you by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin and Paul von Hindenburg!

      • by rmstar (114746) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:37PM (#45216979)

        Hydrogen gas is quite safe, if a tank is just punctured, it will remove itself harmlessly from the vicinity.

        Not really [wikipedia.org]. Among other things, the flame is invisible, which surprisingly is a major safety issue.

        Beyond that, the main problems are storing enough of it (because it is so light) for reasonably long times (because it leaks through normal metal tanks).

        • by McKing (1017) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @06:16PM (#45218107) Homepage
          A friend of mine was really interested in hydrogen as a fuel source for cars, to the point that he converted one of his half-dozen 80's Honda hatchbacks to a hydrogen-powered vehicle. He was a huge fan of hydrogen, until the day that he was working on his car and didn't realize that a fuel line had developed a pinhole leak and caught fire. Since the flame was invisible and he had no reason to be alarmed he reached into the engine compartment to work on something and passed his hand straight through the flame. It was only like a 1/2 second before he realized that his hand was burned and he yanked it out (seriously, it was like he smelled his hand burning before the pain hit).
    • In many regards, but especially to Mr. Musk's business model.

      So, you're proposing that Tesla will face competition from a car that uses alternatives to alternative fuel?

      Hofstadter would be proud.

    • by RenderSeven (938535) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:59PM (#45216439)
      You may be right, but then again a) Musk doesnt seemed very worried, and b) if good fuel cells became available he's in a better position than most to adopt them.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I recently wrote an article on the ability to extract hydrogen from plants and a discovery by Percival Yang but the results of the discovery means that hydrogen can be extracted from plants at almost maximum efficiency in a low cost enzyme based process. Not only did Zang discover a way of way of extracting the hydrogen but he also went out an a limb and suggested another method using hydrocarbon storage of the extracted hydrogen as a method of holding the hydrogen in a safe and easily extractable form of

    • by Teancum (67324)

      In many regards, but especially to Mr. Musk's business model.

      I would say that Elon Musk likely forgets more about hydrogen and fuel cells than you or most people on slashdot will ever learn. SpaceX clearly uses hydrogen as a fuel source, and the use of hydrogen fuel cells dates back to the Gemini program and was used in every single manned NASA mission except for the Mercury flights (which used sealed batteries for power). SpaceX engineers have most certainly looked into its use.

      I'll also note that Tesla doesn't really care if fuel cells work or not in terms of the

  • by atlasdropperofworlds (888683) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:43PM (#45216181)
    But the danger of fuel cells is not so much from the hydrogen storage part, you can engineer around that - ffs lithium batteries can burn too, and they carry their own oxidizers to do it, it's more from the fact that the cheapest source of hydrogen will be from gasification of fossil fuels, and from the fact that hydrogen via electrolysis is horribly inefficient, and then you actually have to build an infrastructure for the hydrogen distribution...
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      In europe, en netherlands in particular we have a gas distribution system for cars. liquified petroleum gas is already safely implemented in many cars without any major incidents. It's sold by all gas stations except those in city centers. So transport, en storage is not a real big issue.

      The simple fact that you can quickly pump gas into a car versus hours of charging is a huge advantage if you want to drive beyond the action radius of a single charge.

      • by PeterKraus (1244558) <peter.kraus@member.fsf.org> on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:43PM (#45217067) Homepage

        I'm not a chemical enginner (just a chemist), but I doubt you can just use the same piping which you used for propane/butane for hydrogen. A lot of the energetics of manipulation of hydrogen are quite different (it heats on expansion - Joule-Thompson), I'd imagine there might be issues with valves and seals along the distribution network, and finally, hydrogen requires much stricter safety specs than hydrocarbons (at least in our labs, you need a special cert to use H2, while anyone can use C2H4 etc.).

        • by cusco (717999)

          Additionally, a huge percentage of the methane piped around the country as natural gas escapes from leaks and bad seals. Hydrogen, being much smaller than a methane molecule, would escape even more rapidly.

    • it's more from the fact that the cheapest source of hydrogen will be from gasification of fossil fuels, and from the fact that hydrogen via electrolysis is horribly inefficient

      You don't say.... I hear that won't be true for much longer though... [oilprice.com]

    • by MobyDisk (75490)

      Interesting. Those sound like the same problems that batteries have: the main source of electricity is fossil fuels, and the need for infrastructure for charging stations.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Russ1642 (1087959)

        The new infrastructure needed for charging stations is not anywhere near as great as would be needed if we switched to fuel cells for cars.

      • by Nemyst (1383049) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:31PM (#45216881) Homepage
        No, not the same thing at all. Hydrogen is usually produced directly from fossil fuels within the chemical reaction itself (see here [wikipedia.org] for details). This is in opposition to electricity for batteries, which is just as good coming from a solar plant as it is from a coal or gas plant. Hydrogen can also be produced from electrolysis, which is actually the most popular way to talk about it in schools, but it's very inefficient and expensive in terms of energy.
    • Well propane cars exist so distribution isn't horribly tricky. Everything else you said is spot on though. The only thing hydrogen would be useful for is places where electricity is hard to import.
    • by Solandri (704621)

      But the danger of fuel cells is [...] the fact that the cheapest source of hydrogen will be from gasification of fossil fuels, and from the fact that hydrogen via electrolysis is horribly inefficient, and then you actually have to build an infrastructure for the hydrogen distribution

      There's work being done on alcohol fuel cells (so far, only methanol). They're a lot less efficient than hydrogen fuel cells. But if we can increase their efficiency and get them to worth with ethanol, then we'll have a way t

    • Hydrogen may not be the answer, but neither is electricity. The 'answer' will probably be a combination of fuels and vehicles depending on requirements.

      The problem with electric cars will always be the range/refuel problem. While it's true around town traffic isn't too much of an issue, corridors like I10 and I8 between Phoenix/Tucson and the San Diego/LA need at least one central station between them for people to fill up.

      The Nissan Leaf has a 24kWh electric battery that advertises 75miles range. Tha
  • by casings (257363) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:44PM (#45216197)

    They all have their drawbacks, Elon.

    • by cusco (717999)

      That's one of the reasons that they want to mine lithium in the Atacama Desert and the Lago Po'opo salt pan. There's no natural ecosystem to destroy, not even bacteria in some places, no water table to contaminate, no rain runoff. Of course the main reason is the high concentrated ore, and so far the only obstruction is the Bolivian government's insistence on safe working conditions for miners and refinery workers (to the enormous distress of mining companies, who are used to treating workers as disposabl

  • by Russ1642 (1087959) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:54PM (#45216361)

    His comment applies only to hydrogen fuel cells. There are other kinds, and they offer higher energy storage densities. Don't let this guy's comments deter from the research.

  • We deal with Propane, Methane, and other gasses which seem like they would carry a lot more energy and thus be more dangerous. Does hydrogen have a lower flashpoint or some other quality which makes it more dangerous? We can oderize the gas like the others.
    It seems like hydrogen would be the least dangerous gas. At least it burns cleanly and is not poisonous to breathe. Its light, so it would rise into the atmosphere away from people and property and not hang around near the ground.
    Is this all about

    • by sfm (195458) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:19PM (#45216727)

      Hydrogen has a wider range of flammability mixtures than any of those other gasses mentioned.
      Unlike propane, hyrdogen liquifies at temperatures too cold for normal use so this storage mechanism is not feasible.
      H2 also has a nasty habit of permeating the metal structure of high pressure tanks leading to embrittlement and reduced strength.

      These, and other factors, combine to push Hydrogen higher on the list of "dangerous gasses".

      • by DCFusor (1763438) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:28PM (#45216845) Homepage
        I use an isotope of hydrogen in my lab, in this case deuterium, which is about the same chemically speaking, if anything, a little less reactive (see how they separate the two normally). At any rate, a hose with a few psi supply of it popped off my gear once and was *instantly* on fire - flames invisible at first, but I could hear it, and then see it when the hose material (silicone) itself began to burn. There was no proximate ignition source - maybe some static electricity in the lab.

        No other gas even comes close...the guy who provides my welding gasses, for example, even acetylyene which has to be dissolved in acetone to be "safe" at any pressure over 15-20 psi - it self-explodes otherwise (those unsatisfied carbon bonds) - can't even get the license to sell hydrogen, it's far too much a hazmat.

        Now you want to let joe sixpack work with the stuff in quanity, all over the world? Yeah, it'll solve the population problem anyway. Along with the other stuff mentioned, like embrittlement, no way to liquify it at normal temperatures, a continuous explosive range with any air mixture...inefficient production, energy-wise...long list.

    • Does hydrogen have a lower flashpoint or some other quality which makes it more dangerous?

      doi:10.1016/j.ijhydene.2009.04.012
      Limits for hydrogen leaks that can support stable flames, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy Volume 34, Issue 12, June 2009, Pages 5174–5182

      Hydrogen is an unusual fuel. It has a high leak propensity and wide flammability limits, 4–75% by volume. Among all fuels, hydrogen has the lowest molecular weight, the lowest quenching distance (0.51 mm), the smallest ignition energy in air (28 mJ), the lowest auto-ignition temperature by
      a heated air jet (640C), the h

  • Fuel cells have been a "promise" for decades. Heavy investment and R&D has not yet come close to yielding a product the mass market can make use of. They will be relegated to niche markets unless some tremendous breakthroughs occur.
  • by sackvillian (1476885) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @03:58PM (#45216417)

    I've seen hundreds of researchers work to try to come up with a car-ready inexpensive fuel cell that's, if not safe, at least not going to level a block during a fender-bender. The conclusion I came to long ago was that the big car makers pursue fuel cells to avoid explaining why they've not pursued (or actively stalled) the development of electric vehicles. The fact is that electric cars have a much, much greater potential to replace internal combustion engines than fuel cells for the near future.

    Even just the fact that infrastructure is basically in place for widespread transportation of electricity and not even on the radar for hydrogen gives electric a huge edge!

    I'm not saying the technology might not prove itself within a few decades, but if half of the fuel-cell resources were placed into improving batteries, electric vehicles would be damn near ubiquitous by now. Would anyone argue that the existing automakers really wanted that?

    • I'm not saying the technology might not prove itself within a few decades, but if half of the fuel-cell resources were placed into improving batteries, electric vehicles would be damn near ubiquitous by now.

      Really? Did Elon come to your house and ask you to say that? Battery R+D has been going on, they just keep running into energy density limitations vs combustion based designs. It's not like electric cars are some outrageous new idea, we've had them since the late 1800s.

      Forget GM and Ford, think abou

    • To be fair, the battery technology for a true replacement electric vehicle is just getting there now. And by that I mean one that, with the necessary changes to infrastructure, you can take on a road trip with the same basic level of hassle as a gas powered car. The fact is, the model S has a huge battery in terms of weight and size, using the most effective battery technology available in large scale today, and still barely gets 200+ miles on a charge. Yes, you could drop the performance numbers a bit a

  • by BlueStrat (756137)

    Musk's criticisms depends on the particular type of "fuel cell" under discussion, I would think. There are many architectures & designs, some which only create small amounts of hydrogen & oxygen from electrolyzing H2O which is burned almost immediately internally which have a very low likelihood of causing/starting an explosion or fire.

    There are any number of devices that could be called a "fuel cell". He may be quite correct in his criticisms of what is being currently proposed as automotive "fuel

    • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:12PM (#45216591)

      Musk's criticisms depends on the particular type of "fuel cell" under discussion, I would think. There are many architectures & designs, some which only create small amounts of hydrogen & oxygen from electrolyzing H2O which is burned almost immediately internally which have a very low likelihood of causing/starting an explosion or fire.

      Sweet! Does it then use the electricity from the fuel cell to electrolyze more water? Or does it perhaps use it to run a fan, which in turn drives a windmill?

  • Rocket fuels (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Alomex (148003) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:06PM (#45216511) Homepage

    'Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas. You know, it's suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars,' he said."

    You mean like that other common rocket fuel, gasoline, which is used in the Russian R-12 [wikipedia.org] also known as the Scud missile? Yeap, we would never use that in a car.

    • by nojayuk (567177)

      Elon's Falcon 9 rockets use Rocket Propellant 1 (RP-1) as fuel instead of dangerous gasoline.

      Remind me, what's the "snark" tag in HTML5 again?

  • and one of the solutions for large-scale electric power grid storage to accommodate massive expansion of intermittent renewables.

    We have to remember that the rational premise is we need to cut carbon emissions almost totally out of the economy, and fast, so why not experiment with multiple technologies as alternative energy and transportation infrastructure.

    I don't see lithium battery powered intercontinental jetliners on the horizon any time soon do you? And it goes without saying that aviation can't conti

  • Quandary (Score:5, Informative)

    by nojayuk (567177) on Wednesday October 23, 2013 @04:32PM (#45216895)

    As much as I regard Elon as a self-aggrandising pillock, I have to agree with him here.

    The perfect fuel cell as used on spacecraft and the like burns hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water. Fuel cells intended for use on Earth use air rather than pure oxygen for logistical reasons, air is all around us after all, and the resulting exhaust contains nitrous compounds as well as water. Sometimes the NOx, nitric acid etc. corrodes the red-hot fuel cell catalysts which can be an expensive bummer.

    Fuels used in fuel cells can range from hydrogen up through assorted hydrocarbon fuels like butane, ammonia, oddballs like dimethyl ether and the like. Adding carbon gets more energy per kilo of fuel but adds CO2 to the exhaust and possibly traces of other interesting chemicals like CO, cyanogens, dioxins etc. and may cause more damage to the catalysts in conjunction with the NOx compounds.

    Hydrogen is a piss-poor fuel for vehicles. It's low-density per joule stored, damages ordinary steels through hydrogen embrittlement and in gas form leaks very easily through joints, gaskets and even through the metal walls of containers given a chance as hydrogen is the smallest molecule known, the escape artist of the periodic table. Liquefying it is energy-intensive, it has to be kept very cold and LH2 is also very low density, the least dense liquid known in fact.

  • Kind of a life mimics art thing. I wonder if he'll go for the Downey Jr. pirate goatee?

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