DETROIT -- It's an engine technology that started as a lark nearly 10 years ago by a small group of alternative-fuel tinkerers tucked away deep inside Ford Motor Co.
Now it's going into limited production when a special fleet of hydrogen-fueled shuttle buses takes to the road in Orlando, Fla., later this summer.
Ford started production last week on a supercharged V-10 engine that runs on gaseous hydrogen. The engines, each hand-built, will be installed in E-450 vans and used in airport shuttle fleets. Ford plans to lease around 20 of the vans for three years at a total cost of $250,000 each.
Ford wants to cap production of the test vans at around 100 because of the staffing it will take to monitor performance, said John Lapetz, manager of Ford's hydrogen-engine vehicle program. The state of California is expected to place the next order for hydrogen vans.
Vance Zanardelli, Ford's chief engineer for hydrogen engines, says hydrogen internal combustion engine technology has potential for consumer applications.
Ford is not the only automaker using hydrogen as a fuel. BMW has said it plans to launch a gasoline/hydrogen version of its 7-series sedan.
Zanardelli says he thinks hydrogen buses can help change consumers' minds about hydrogen as a potential fuel. Ford thinks captive fleets of vehicles that run on hydrogen could help kick-start a hydrogen fuel distribution system for fuel cell vehicles.
The engine, a 6.8-liter V-10, generates 235 hp. The supercharger enables the engine to develop low-speed torque so that the 14,000-pound shuttle van has about the same acceleration as the diesel-engine version.
A cylindrical tank in the rear of the van holds 5,000 psi of gaseous hydrogen, giving the vehicle a range of 150 to 200 miles. The fuel economy is equal to about 7 mpg.
Carbon dioxide or CO2 emissions are nearly nonexistent. But oxides of nitrogen or NOx emissions are high enough to require a filter in the exhaust system.
Robert Natkin, technical leader on Ford's hydrogen internal combustion engines, said the project began quietly nearly 10 years ago, just to see whether a regular automobile engine could be made to run on gaseous hydrogen.
"It started out as a research project," Natkin said. "But once we started demonstrating that we could make an engine run reliably, that we could make it run very efficiently and with very clean emissions, people started asking what are you going to do with the technology.
"We are using this as a bridge from today's gasoline engines to tomorrow's fuel cells. At Ford we still believe that fuel cells have the potential as being the ultimate clean and efficient powertrain."
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]