It forecasts that hydrogen could become that holy grail of fuels: non-polluting and drawn from renewable energy sources rather than alternative fuels of today, such as liquefied petroleum gas, which as a bi-product of the refining process, relies on the finite supply of crude oil; and bio-diesel, the use of which has prompted environmental concerns since its production consumes around 80% of the energy gained. Production costs also make bio-diesel non-viable.
The benefits of hydrogen are that it can be produced relatively simply from water, and can be stored. It is also, unlike other alternative fuels being explored, completely non-polluting.
So, Ford engineers on a recent press visit to Aachen ventured to call hydrogen the 'fuel of the future'.
Dr Franz-Martin Dubel, marketing manager for alternative powertrains, Ford of Europe, said: 'The launch target for a marketable hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is 2010. We plan to roll it out to small fleets, mostly in California and Germany, in 2004 and go into mass-production by the beginning of the next decade, producing at least 50,000 units per annum.'
Small scale tests are already under way piloting fuel cells in Munich (using liquid hydrogen) and Berlin (gaseous hydrogen). But he said Ford has no plans to involve UK fleets in the trials.
As part of the research and testing project, a 2.0-litre Duratec petrol engine, modified to run on hydrogen, has been under evaluation by Ford since 1999. The prototype vehicle, the P2000, last year set a world record in a 24-hour endurance run. Stopping only to refuel, the car achieved an on-track average speed of 65mpg and covered a distance of 1,390 miles - the furthest ever by a fuel cell car in one day.
In April, Ford plans to roll-out a fuel cell Focus for evaluation.
But the manufacturer insists that meeting its own deadlines presents huge challenges. To be acceptable to the consumer a hydrogen-powered car must be affordable. Dr Dubel said Ford's target was for such a car to retail the same as a direct injection turbodiesel- engined equivalent car. 'Otherwise the customer just couldn't afford it,' he said.
There are also concerns regarding the refuelling infrastructure, the political will required to see widespread adoption of fuel cell technology, the importance of overcoming public fears regarding the safety of hydrogen, and the cost barriers.
On the safety issue, Dr Dubel said: 'I've worked with hydrogen for five years and it has to be treated differently to petrol at the filling station. But the tank containing it will be tougher than any other part of the car to withstand internal and external pressures.'
Ford is also now working on a hydrogen combustion engine, which runs on petrol and hydrogen, bridging the gap between current technologies and the 2010 goal for fuel cell vehicle mass production. The bi-fuel vehicle would also overcome the lack of hydrogen filling stations. However, it is likely to be another three to four years before a hydrogen bifuel vehicle will be ready for mass-production.
The hydrogen combustion engine emits between 85-99% less carbon dioxide than the equivalent petrol-engined car.
Solutions sought as oil supplies dwindle
As Ford strives to win pre-eminence in fuel cell technology, engineers at the Aachen technical centre in Germany continue to work on solutions that will meet the needs of motorists facing a world of dwindling crude oil supplies and political tensions exacerbated by the September 11 disaster, that will inevitably lead to volatile pump prices.
Dr Franz-Martin Dubel, Ford of Europe's marketing manager for alternative powertrains, said: 'However, successful we are in developing alternative power sources to petrol and diesel, their acceptance will be greatly influenced pressure on oil prices.
'September 11 has succeeded in bringing to focus pressures that were already there.'
For years, Ford has been developing vehicles with very different alternative powertrains and now claims to be the largest global supplier of such vehicles, with 300,000 now in use.
Ford's leading technicians believe that until hydrogen-based technology is sufficiently advanced for mass production, they will have to provide the most diverse variety of alternative fuels on almost a region-by-region basis. So, Ford's alternative fuel 'portfolio' includes liquefied petroleum gas, compressed natural gas, biodiesel and ethanol, together with hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen combustion engines.
Dr Gerhard Schmidt, Ford Motor Company's vice-president of research, said: 'Our expectation is that the future will be more complex politically and socially, and we must make different technologies available - to offer tailored solutions for each of the different countries we are in and a complete choice of vehicles, from the Ka to the Transit.'
Registration details produced by Ford reveal the demand for the diversity of technologies available. The number of LPG vehicles in the world totals 7.3 million. In the UK the total is about 85,000, says Ford. However, in Italy they number 1.23 million. Vehicles powered by compressed natural gas total 378,845 in Europe, but in Argentina alone it's 630,548.
Ford's offering of alternative fuel vehicles is growing to meet this demand. By the end of 2002 there will be LPG versions of the Transit and Focus and by the end of 2003, the Mondeo.
The Ford fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles in 2002 includes the Ka 1.3 L, Focus 1.8 L Zetec-E and Transit rear-wheel drive.
Alternative fuel fact file
Below is a summary of the research under way by Ford into different fuel technologies and an assessment of their long-term potential.
Ethanol can be produced from a number of sources, from straw to wine. In Sweden the abundance of wood chip from the logging industry means the use of ethanol is about to see substantial growth. The Focus has been specially adapted for this market to run on an ethanol/petrol fuel mix. The number of filling stations is set to rise from 50 to 500 by 2006. The presence of government subsidies and tax relief means Sweden is the only country in which Ford is launching the Focus FFV outside the USA.
Also known as rape methyl ester, the use of biodiesel is carbon dioxide neutral. Production costs of between 0.80 Euro and 1.30 per litre (excluding tax) and the damage caused to diesel injection pumps by the fuel means that Ford has branded biodiesel a 'niche fuel' and has ceased development work.
Liquified petroleum gas
LPG production relies on the refining of crude oil, a dwindling resource. Prof Henning Wallentowitz, director of Aachen technical university, a testing centre for Ford, said that LPG use probably has a lifespan of 30 years. Ford is increasing its LPG range in 2002 and 2003, but says LPG is only a 'medium-term' solution.
Is either naturally produced - typically near oilfields - or can be sourced from landfill sites, farms and water purification plants. Ford says CNG is economically feasible and 'eco-friendly'. All Ford's CNG passenger vehicles exceed Euro IV emission standards set to be introduced in 2005. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 25% compared to a petrol engine (LPG: 15%). Development hampered by lack of filling stations and the vehicles' short range.