Ford tests a hydrogen F-350
David Guralnick/ The Detroit News
Robert Natkin, technical leader for H21CE, stands in front of a Ford F-350 that has been fitted with a V-10 Ford hydrogen internal combustion engine.
David Guralnick/ The Detroit News
Compared with gasoline engines, hydrogen internal combustion engines offer fuel economy improvements of up to 25 percent. This Ford F-350 has been fitted with a V-10 Ford hydrogen internal combustion engine.
V-10 Super Duty 4x4 pickup is based on its existing gasoline engine designs
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
DEARBORN — Ford Motor Co. has a small secret that could have big implications for the advancement of hydrogen-powered vehicle development.
The automaker has developed a supercharged, 6.8-liter V-10 internal combustion engine that runs on clean-burning hydrogen instead of gasoline. And for months now, the automaker has been testing the engine in a F-350 Super Duty 4x4 pickup nicknamed “Tiny” on the streets of Dearborn.
Ford’s latest experiment helps demonstrate that hydrogen-powered vehicles — which can be fuel efficient and clean — don’t have to be sluggish, four-cylinder econoboxes.
Ford hopes test data it derives from the truck’s demonstration will help accelerate commercial demand for hydrogen, which must happen before an infrastructure to deliver the new fuel can be established.
Environmental concerns, rising gasoline prices and political volatility in the world’s top oil-producing countries have focused the auto industry’s attention on hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to internal combustion engines.
But the cost of the new technology, coupled with hydrogen’s scarcity as a high-volume fuel, remain a large barrier.
“If you want to build a hydrogen infrastructure, the way to do it is to get on with building hydrogen fuel systems for cars,” said Ray Smith, program leader for energy technologies and security at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"When the fuel cell guys get their economic act together, the transition will be relatively smooth."
Ford views the hydrogen internal combustion engine as a transitional technology. The F-350 hydrogen engine's economically feasible because it's based on existing engine designs - only the fuel has been changed.
"You service it the same, change the oil every 5,000 miles," said Bob Natkin, technical leader of Ford's V-10 hydrogen engine program. The truck's hydrogen fuel tanks are reinforced with carbon and can withstand a rifle round or a five-story fall, Natkin said.
Ford expects to have a fleet of V-10 powered trucks on the road for testing within 12 months. Other companies also are joining the hydrogen race.
German automaker BMG AG has a test fleet and plans to market, within two years, 7-Series luxury sedans powered by hydrogen internal combustion engines.
For now, driving range remains a significant obstacle for hydrogen-powered engines. Ford's F-350 truck gets about 100 miles of travel out of every fill-up - well short of the 300 miles considered necessary for customer acceptance, Natkin said.
Increasing the capacity of hydrogen tanks from 5,000 pounds per square inch to 10,000 pounds will improve performance, but not to levels acceptable to consumers. Ford is expected to make the transition with its Focus FCV, which is currently in production for fleet testing.
Compared with gasoline engines, hydrogen internal combustion engines offer fuel economy improvements of up to 25 percent. But hydrogen also compromises output.
Hydrogen displaces more air during combustion than gasoline, and air volume is critical to power generation.
"We use supercharging as a means to recover some of the performance that you'd otherwise lose," said Vince Zanardelli, manager of Ford's strategic powertrain technologies.
A supercharger forces air into an engine to improve combustion and generate more power.
With the F-350, the result is a truck that is quieter than many diesels and puts out 225 horsepower and 300 ft.-lb. of torque. That's well below the output of Ford's gas-powered V-10, which makes 355 horsepower and 455 ft.-lb. of torque, but Natkin says the hydrogen-powered truck has room to grow.
"We just have to turn the (power) up," he said.
Ford's previous hydrogen-fueled vehicles - including the Model U concept car unveiled at the 2003 Detroit auto show - have featured 2.3-liter four-cylinder engines. So the V-10 engine development is big, said Don Hillebrand, vehicle system section manager at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago.
"No one was really sure how far you could push it," Hillebrand said of hydrogen technology. "They're pushing the output that they're getting for the internal combustion engine higher and higher and higher."
Power will be the key to the technology's development because gasoline engines have become so efficient. Last year, Ford rolled out a version of its Focus that emits almost no pollutants.
"The gasoline boys have raised the bar for the hydrogen guys, so they have to do some pretty spectacular stuff," Smith said.