It has been a wild week for electric carmakers, especially Tesla and its emerging EV challenger, Nikola.
On Wednesday, Tesla shares passed the $1,000 mark for the first time after CEO Elon Musk ordered the company to prioritize manufacturing the Tesla Semi, an electric heavy-duty truck bearing the promise of launching Tesla into the lucrative commercial vehicle market. The much smaller Nikola, which touts a similar product powered by hydrogen fuel cells instead of lithium-ion batteries like Tesla, sparked even greater investor excitement: shares jumped more than 100 percent on Monday, making the newly IPO-ed company already more valuable than Ford, despite having sold zero cars.
Yet, Musk doesn’t seem to think that Tesla’s stock rally has anything to do with Nikola—or the other way around. In fact, he refuses to take Nikola’s hydrogen trucks seriously.
“Fuel cells=fool sells,” the Tesla CEO mocked Nikola’s core technology in a tweet early Thursday morning. It’s “staggeringly dumb,” he wrote in another tweet.
It’s not the first time Musk has made fun of hydrogen fuel cells. In the past, he has called them “fool cells,” “mind-boggling stupid” and “simply not possible” to succeed. “I got the fuel cell question about 8,000 times,” he tweeted Thursday.
Exactly, fuel cells = fool sells
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 11, 2020
The debate between lithium-ion batteries versus hydrogen fuel cells has been going on in the circle of alternative energy for years. Both technologies aim for a zero-emission future, but breakthroughs in fuel cell technology came much later than that lithium-ion batteries and no company has successfully commercialized its use in cars yet.
A fuel cell generates energy in the form of electricity by harnessing chemical reactions from hydrogen and oxygen while leaving water (H2O) as the only byproduct. It’s supposed to be the perfect clean energy and more efficient than lithium-ion batteries because hydrogen is lightweight. Not to mention that it is the most abundant resource in the universe.
The problem, though, is that it takes a lot of energy in the first place to turn hydrogen into useable car fuel. The most common method is electrolyzing water.
“It’s just very difficult to make hydrogen, store it, and use it in a car. Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It’s not a source” Musk said in a 2015 interview.
“Electrolysis is an extremely inefficient energy process,” he went on to explain. “If you charge your battery packs from a solar panel directly, compared with trying to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen with extremely high pressure or liquify it, put it in a car, and run a fuel cell. It is about half the efficiency. It’s terrible.”
Nikola CEO Trevor Milton has reacted to such doubt in the past by arguing that it takes time for a nascent technology like fuel cells to mature. “I think most technologies take 10 years or more to productionize,” he told Observer in an interview last year. “While electric is now more mainstream, there are still issues to be worked out. It is the same with fuel cells. They are already on the road and being improved on.”
Observer has reached out to Milton for a response to Musk’s latest tweets but hasn’t heard back at press time.