Hydrogen on tap

Refilling a fuel cell car with hydrogen will be easier to do than filling up with petrol, according to Philip Chizek, manager of Ford’s fuel cell programme.

Working with Air Products, Ford claims to have developed an almost completely automated hydrogen refuelling system that will allow drivers to refuel with the minimum of difficulty.

Speaking at the Motor Show in Birmingham last week Chizek said that Ford had developed a system based around gaseous hydrogen, rather than liquid hydrogen, because it was easier to handle.

Here’s how it works: Using a hydrogen ‘quick connect fuelling point’, the driver flips open the fuel filler in the normal way, pushes the nozzle on, and turns it to lock and open a valve. He then presses a ‘fill’ button. The unit electronically monitors pressure and temperature in the fuel tank and works out how much is needed to fill it. The whole operation takes only 10 seconds.

Hydrogen is stored in the car in a pressure vessel at 350bar, while downstream of the tank, the car’s fuel system would operate at about 20bar.

In a Focus FCV prototype, the tank was made of aluminium encased in carbon fibre. ‘It’s been destructively crash-tested,’ said Chizek. Hydrogen sensors around the car would detect leaks and shut the supply off if a leak were detected.

Studies by Ford engineers suggest that hydrogen filling stations capable of supplying 100 vehicles a day with hydrogen, and built in sufficient numbers to achieve economies of scale, could produce hydrogen on the spot for sale at a price comparable with current petrol prices.

Such stations would produce their own hydrogen from electrolysis of water, or by extracting it from natural gas. To be truly emission-free the process would have to be carried out using hydro-electricity or solar power.

A natural gas reformer currently costs £950,000, but Ford is expecting economies of scale to bring the price down to £157,000. Once 10-15% of filling stations were equipped with hydrogen filling units, mass motor transport would be possible, at least in urban areas.

Chizek said Ford is working with partners and government organisations such as the UK’s Carbon Trust, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, and the US Department of Energy, as well as industrial partners such as BP, to encourage the establishment of a hydrogen infrastructure and the development of common standards.

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