Ford steps on the gas

Ford held talks with the UK government this week in the hope of establishing a pilot scheme for hydrogen fuel cell cars in the UK. The test, involving five vehicles over a three-year period, would mirror those due to take place in Germany, Canada and the US.

Ford is set to deliver a fleet of modified Focus saloons to each test location next year, where they will be used and monitored as part of the car maker’s wider fuel cell research programme.

Phil Chizek, manager of marketing and sales for Ford Sustainable Mobility Technologies, said discussions would begin this week with the UK government to explore the possibility of setting up a test programme here: ‘The move to a production test fleet will allow the company to gain valuable real-world information. We need to learn about such things as serviceability, reliability and the logistics of hydrogen refuelling.’

A spokeswoman for Ford said it presented its latest Focus FCV Hybrid to officials from the Department of Transport this week. ‘We are not at the stage of signing on the dotted line, but the ultimate goal is to set up a trial in the UK,’ she said.

Ford first unveiled its fuel cell concept vehicle in the UK on a damp day in Cornwall last October. But the wet weather proved too much and, embarrassingly, it broke down when moisture leaked into a fan control module.

This was an off-the-shelf item that was supplied in the UK and Ford said work has now been done to ensure it remains waterproof.

But the vehicle has undergone much more extensive engineering and modification since last year, and the latest prototype arrived in the UK last week.

The vehicle was on test at Ford’s technical centre in Dunton, Essex, where it was put through its paces without a hitch, offering a performance similar to a conventional Focus (see sidebar).

The principal alteration in this second-generation prototype is the addition of a 216V hybrid battery to start the vehicle and supply an additional 18kW (25hp) of thrust during acceleration. The battery is recharged by a new regenerative braking system. The combination of the battery with the Ballard Mk 902 fuel cell stack, which provides the bulk 68kW (92hp) of the power, has allowed engineers to improve the vehicle’s efficiency.

Chizek said the latest prototype has a range of 180 to 200 miles, and a top speed limited to 80mph with a single speed transmission.

‘The vehicle’s energy-management system can deliver better performance than today’s fuel cell technology provides on its own because both systems are operating frequently in or close to their ‘sweet spot’,’ he said.

The term refers to the optimal operating range of performance in which both energy sources jointly deliver a higher output than would be expected by the nominal maximum power of a 68kW engine.

While modern petrol engines are capable of converting about 30 per cent of the energy potential of fuel into power, fuel cell efficiency is rated at about 60 per cent, with a peak of 90 per cent. But to preserve the efficiencies offered by the fuel cell, Ford has had to do a lot of work to reduce the weight of the FCV hybrid. At present it weighs 1,600kg, still about 200kg above the weight of an equivalent petrol engine vehicle. This has been achieved through the use of about 150 ‘weight-optimised’ parts, which Chizek said has saved in the region of 300kg.

Large segments of the underbody, as well as the doors and bonnet, are made of aluminium. The windscreens are of thin glass or polycarbonate. High-strength steel has been used in the side panels and roof. The vehicle is fitted with titanium springs and magnesium brackets and composite materials have been used in areas such as the boot lid.

To improve efficiency the electric drive motor can act as the generator brake for low deceleration rates. According to Ford, this means that 95 per cent of braking can be used to produce electrical energy which is fed back into the battery.

Chizek agreed that more had to be done to reduce the weight and final cost of the Focus FCV, a point he would not give any guidance on.

But the greatest hurdle facing the introduction of fuel cell cars continues to be the production and distribution of hydrogen itself, and Chizek said that this was where government support was most needed.

Meanwhile, Ford has set up a research-sharing partnership with BP, which plans to open a number of pilot hydrogen filling stations at selected locations in Europe, the US and Australia. It is currently awaiting planning permission for one such facility on the A127 at Hornchurch to supply a fleet of buses next year.

Sidebar: The driving experience

‘We want this car to be transparent,’ said Phil Chizek as we looked at the Focus FCV Hybrid sitting on the tarmac outside Ford’s technical centre in Dunton.

What he meant, of course, was exactly the opposite. But for the big sticker on the bumper and a strange humming noise like on old vacuum cleaner it would be almost impossible to tell this vehicle runs on a fuel cell and giant hybrid battery.

All this technology is hidden away so successfully that the car looks like a normal petrol-engined Focus, inside and out.

What Chizek is getting at is that there are no extra controls for the driver to cope with and there is nothing in the car’s performance or handling that those new to the world of hydrogen power have to get used to – just put the gear lever in ‘drive’ and put your foot on the accelerator.

As you move off you hear an increase in the pitch and volume of the humming. This is the air compressor pushing more oxygen into the fuel cell.

The stack itself sits beneath the driver’s seat. The hybrid battery, which adds thrust during acceleration, stands behind the rear passenger seat and the 178-litre fuel tank takes up a large portion of the boot. The electric motor and regenerative braking charger are under the bonnet.

Thanks to the lack of almost any mechanical connection it is possible to arrange the packaging of the various components in such a way as to achieve good balance and a low centre of gravity. The weight is split evenly between the front and back of the vehicle which has benefits for handling especially during braking, claims Ford.

Unfortunately on the streets of Dunton there was no opportunity to put this to the test. However, the acceleration was impressive for a vehicle that was apparently running on gas and emitting only water vapour.

The electric motor under the bonnet has a maximum speed of 12,500rpm and develops a maximum torque of 230Nm – comparable, says Ford, to a conventional 170hp, 2.5-litre engine in a Mondeo. Consequently only a single speed transmission is needed to reach a top speed of 80mph, to which the car is limited.

Pulling away at junctions and accelerating on the open road are effortless operations for the power system which responds instantly to the throttle pedal.

Sidebar: International plan in prospect

The UK government will attend a summit in November expected to create an international organisation to accelerate moves towards the hydrogen economy.

This month, the government received an invitation to attend the event, announced by US energy secretary Spencer Abraham in April in Paris and again last week in Berlin.

The summit will aim to create the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE), which Abraham said would investigate the technological, financial and institutional barriers to using hydrogen, and develop international standards to accelerate the commercialisation of new hydrogen-based technologies.

As well as the UK, Abraham said IPHE could have 15 partners including France, Germany and Italy.

A spokeswoman for the UK’s DTI, which is responsible for energy policy, said the government was aware of the summit and would be participating. ‘We understand the meeting of the IPHE is likely to be held in Washington DC from 18 to 21 November. We’ve only just received the invitation, so we haven’t decided who will go and it is far too early for us to say what we expect to get from the summit,’ she said.

Last week, Abraham’s energy department also announced that it is to spend $4m (£2.4m) on critical fuel cell materials research. Project areas include cathode and electrode materials, power converters, conductive coatings, cell reliability and diagnostics. The universities involved include Florida, Illinois, Washington, Pittsburgh and Texas.

The research forms part of President Bush’s $1bn (£604m) Freedom Car and Freedom Fuel initiatives to realise hydrogen vehicles and a hydrogen economy. The EU has also announced its own European partnership for hydrogen, to be set up in early October to create a hydrogen economy ‘roadmap’.

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