DETROIT - The lightest element in the universe is getting some heavyweight attention at Ford Motor Co.
Ford is spending tens of millions of dollars at its vehicle development campus in Dearborn, Mich., to install plumbing for hydrogen, a fuel that someday could make automobiles virtually pollution-free.
'We're making a big bet on (hydrogen) because we think it's a technology whose day will come,' said Neil Ressler, Ford's vice president of advanced technology.
At the center of its engineering campus, Ford has erected a hydrogen filling station to service fuel-cell-powered vehicles.
It is only the second hydrogen fuel pump in North America and the first that can dole out both gaseous and liquid hydrogen from its 1,500-gallon tank.
The new filling station is similar to a corner gasoline station except that it lacks a mini-mart. It cost Ford about $300,000, according to a supplier to the project. The station is the hub for a network of subterranean pipes that supply hydrogen to various buildings.
Widespread use of hydrogen is likely still decades away, but the atmosphere's most abundant gas will creep into limited-production vehicles as early as 2004.
Hydrogen will power Ford's first production fuel-cell vehicles, said Bill Powers, vice president for research.
A fuel cell makes electricity by separating the electron and proton in a hydrogen atom and using the electrons as current to power a vehicle's drive motor. The atoms then recombine with oxygen to make water vapor for the tailpipe. Hydrogen also can be burned in an engine in place of gasoline. It generates almost no hydrocarbons and less carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide than gasoline.
To date, BMW AG has been the most vocal advocate of hydrogen engines. But Ford's announcement that it has begun developing hydrogen engines is no surprise, says analyst Jim Hall in the Southfield, Mich., office of AutoPacific Inc.
'Ford owns a big chunk of somebody who has been interested in hydrogen engines for a long time - Mazda.'
CLEAN BUT COSTLY
In the past, Mazda has built rotary-powered prototypes fueled by hydrogen. Even so, Hall fears Ford may be stretching its r&d resources if its engineers split their time between hydrogen fuel cells and engines.
'Normally you would expect a company to pursue one or the other, because the amount of work they'll have to do to commercialize both will be huge,' he says.
Though clean, hydrogen has several drawbacks as an engine fuel. Cost is one. It may be plentiful in the atmosphere, but commercial hydrogen must be manufactured, typically from natural gas.
The hydrogen equivalent of a gallon of gasoline costs twice as much wholesale. But if gasoline taxes are included, the retail price of hydrogen should be about even, says Powers.
Hydrogen also contains less energy per a given volume than gasoline. The latest hydrogen prototypes from BMW, for example, have the equivalent fuel economy of about 7 mpg, even though hydrogen engines run far leaner ratios of air to fuel (88: 1 vs. about 14: 1 in a typical gasoline engine).
Fuel-cell vehicles aren't much better. Even when packed into a 22-gallon tank at 3,600 pounds per square inch, the Ford P2000's hydrogen is exhausted in only 100 miles.
One option is to liquefy the hydrogen by chilling it to -423 degrees Fahrenheit. Though the tank can hold more fuel that way, it must be heavily insulated to maintain the frigid temperatures or the hydrogen will boil away.
Another option is to use an onboard re-former to convert another fuel such as methanol into hydrogen.
Engineers already are testing re-formers on gasoline-powered vehicles to reduce cold-start emissions. The re-formers make enough hydrogen from gasoline to run the engine for 30 seconds, warming the catalytic converter to operating temperatures and cutting hydrocarbon emissions.
In Ford's science laboratory, the company spent $35 million to rebuild two engine test cells to run hydrogen-powered engines. Safety was a big part of the tab. Burning hydrogen generates no visible flame, for example, so Ford installed a camera that detects heat based on infrared energy.
The test cells started operation last December.