Tesla Engineer: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Can’t Cut It

Tesla CTO JB Straubel believes that battery technology is widening its already-substantial lead over hydrogen fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells are essentially incapable of addressing the large-scale environmental challenges of automotive transportation and will never catch up with batteries as an alternative fuel source, Tesla Inc.'s top engineer told attendees at Advanced Design & Manufacturing conference in Cleveland this week.

Tesla CTO JB Straubel: “I think we will see the remaining automotive companies – the holdouts focusing on fuel cells – shift more toward (battery) EVs over time.” (Source: Design News)

JB Straubel, chief technology officer for Tesla, said that fuel cell technology has “intractable” infrastructure problems that will prevent it from ever serving as a major automotive fuel source, despite the advantages it offers in terms of long driving ranges and quick recharge times.

“It’s a technology that’s always three to five years away,” Straubel told a standing room-only crowd of engineers at the show. “There are so many fundamental challenges with commercializing it for cars that I don’t see it catching up or ever competing with batteries at this point.”

During a wide-ranging hour-long talk, Straubel discussed Tesla’s decade-long rise to global prominence and detailed its recent improvements in battery technology. He also described his company’s growing emphasis on manufacturing technology, and explained how it is driving down the cost of lithium-ion cells.

“A lot of people think that batteries can’t come down very much (in cost),” Straubel said. “They look at the existing bill of materials for a lithium-ion battery, and it looks very hard. But if you look at the commodities – copper, aluminum, nickel, cobalt – there’s a lot of room left for reducing the cost.”

Improvements in cost, specific energy and recharge time are increasingly making hydrogen fuel cells look inadequate, he said. “The improvement curve on batteries is in my view going to completely eclipse even the best advantages of hydrogen fuel cells,” he said.

In contrast, he said automakers are just beginning to comprehend the difficulties associated with fuel cells. Hydrogen, he said, is impractical and difficult to transport. Moreover, hydrogen fueling stations are exceptionally expensive.

Straubel’s comments came in the wake of accelerated efforts by Toyota, General Motors, and Honda to commercialize fuel cell technology. In a recent story published in the Financial Times , Toyota said it plans to sell more than 30,000 hydrogen-powered cars a year by 2020, about 10-times more than its 2017 production target. General Motors and Honda are similarly making plans for the technology as part of a joint effort, and Hyundai has also produced a fuel cell-driven car.

Meanwhile, Tesla is so committed to batteries that it is using its technology as a springboard to launch itself into the wider energy market, Straubel said. Battery cells from its massive Gigafactory are now being targeted toward the company’s growing efforts in home and commercial storage. Tesla is building battery-based storage units and solar roofs for homes, largely in response to queries from customers, Straubel said.

“Almost everyone we sell an electric car to immediately starts thinking about how to charge it and where the energy comes from,” he added.

Ultimately, he believes that the continued

Comments

Instead of saying nothing on the accelerating hydrogen technology, Tesla continues to mock hydrogen. In doing so, Tesla is making it impossible for itself to use hydrogen to complement its battery cars when it inevitably will have to.

I don't know the relationship of GH2 to batteries or electricity...maybe for a fuel cell vehicle; but Tesla is not competing with Deere or CAT at the moment so, I would say GH2 has no place in a personal vehicle, electric or otherwise. Hydrogen and H2+O2 from electrolysis, is a pretty good fuel additive to diesel and not so much for Petrol. The cost of GH2 containment is way more than any fuel mileage advantage I have seen and the cost of materials and infrastructure for GH2 is way too much!

What lead? Hydrogen was never even a contender. There is no hydrogen infrastructure and there never will be, for a variety of insurmountable reasons.

I was present at his address. His Hydrogen comment is answering a question from the audience at the end of an hour long presentation about the history of Tesla and the future of the Gigafactory. Lack of hydrogen infrastructure was the major substance of his reply in that answer.

Tesla presents a very biased point of view, that only benefits it commercial aspirations/ greediness. The batteries BOM is very damaging to the environment and nobady is talking about the disposing of them, after let say, in 5 to 10 years time when the batteries will have to be replaced. What to do with them... Battery disposal is already a huge burden in the environment, and unfortunately is a quick fix with no one taking any time to explain how to deal with the aftermath of it.

Maybe just recycle them, like we do with the much dirtier lead-acid batteries used in virtually all of the hundreds of millions of vehicles in the world? I haven't heard that's a major problem. And if you drive 15,000 miles per year, a reasonable lifetime guess of 1000 charge cycles would cover you for about 13 years in a Tesla. And this burden needs to be considered along with the elimination of pollution from burning oil.

Of course Tesla presents a biased point of view, it's not like a presentation from some industry expert, it is Tesla's presentation.

To think that batteries, or fuel cells or whatever other creative source we find is the only solution is narrow minded. Just think if we decided that solar alone, or nuclear alone, or wind alone, or water alone was going to be our solution to our overall energy dependence on fossil fuels. The solution is a mix and so to automotive. Batteries may be sensible for many, but I could see goods transportation making use of hydrogen, where a truck could run an entire route without having to recharge.

The new style batteries (not yet available) use a solid state electrolyte and they provide more power safer and they are non toxic to dispose of. There are other options and they include nuclear, water and other fuels not thought of. I do think that Tesla will have to get with the program and use the new solid state electrolyte. The liquid one they have poses a huge potential danger that far exceeds the hydrogen fuel cell.

I was present at his address. In answering a question from the audience he addressed the ability to switch to future battery technologies without a lot of problems at both the usage level and in the design of the Gigafactory. Right now none of them are volume production ready. While he did not address it, I'd say watch Sodium Glass batteries as a future contender.

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