Elon Musk isn’t shy about his contempt for hydrogen fuel cells. The power source, which Musk has referred to as “fool cells” and “mind-bogglingly stupid,” uses hydrogen to generate electricity, and currently powers data centers, trains, and cruise ships. Dutch natural gas company Holthausen Group is hoping to show that hydrogen power also has a future in transportation by installing some fuel cells in a Tesla.
Holthausen founder Stefan Holthausen reports (in Dutch) that the company added hydrogen fuel tanks to a Model S, giving it a range of 1,000 KM (or about 621 miles), compared with 542 km (337 miles) for Tesla’s largest available battery pack (P100D). Dubbed the “Hesla,” the 50,000 ($58,000) modification has allegedly grabbed some attention: “We have already received a lot of requests from home and abroad,” Holthausen said.
Yet that’s unlikely to make much of dent in EV sales. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars, such as Toyota’s 2014 Mirai and similar models from Honda and Hyundai, have failed to take off. That’s likely because hydrogen currently lacks refueling infrastructure, and electric battery vehicles remain simpler, cheaper, and more accessible. The “electrification of vehicles is almost entirely built around lithium-ion electric in the next five to seven years,” Brett Smith of the Center for Automotive Research told CNBC.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no future for hydrogen cells, which have advantages that include refueling speed and distance (both critical for long-haul and industrial applications). Unlike batteries, liquid hydrogen tanks can be topped off in a few minutes, instead of the 30+ it now takes to recharge batteries. Adding weight and distance also means electric batteries become impractically large for heavy trucks and industrial vehicles. Here, hydrogen is already making inroads: 14,000 hydrogen-powered forklifts already operate in the US, CNBC reports.
If performance issues are solved, the next challenge will be sourcing low-carbon hydrogen. Most hydrogen fuel today is derived from natural gas extraction and other fossil fuels. One possibility: In the future, a glut of renewable energy from wind and solar during off-peak periods could be “stored” in hydrogen fuel (a process known as hydrolysis can use electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen).