Ford E450 Hydrogen-powered shuttle bus. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Chris Chase

Photo Gallery: Ford E450 Hydrogen-powered shuttle bus

It’s technology that’s years away from mass production, but Ford hopes that a “mostly-made-in-Canada” hydrogen-powered shuttle bus pilot project on Parliament Hill will provide food for thought on the future of alternative fuel vehicles.

Earlier this month, Ford of Canada joined clean energy technology non-profit organization ATFCAN, Industry Canada and Natural Resources Canada on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to reveal the first of three hydrogen-fuelled shuttle buses that will be put into service in the Senate’s vehicle fleet. The buses, based on a Ford E450 van chassis, will be used to move Members of Parliament, Senators and staff between the buildings in downtown Ottawa’s Parliamentary precinct. When the buses officially go into service in early 2007, they will be the first of their kind on the road in Canada.

More than half of the technology that makes the buses work was developed in this country. The 6.8-litre V10 is built at Ford’s Windsor, Ontario engine plant; the carbon fibre high-pressure fuel tanks are from Dynatek Industries in Calgary; the bus bodies are made by Les Enterprises Michel Corbeil in St.-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec; the hydrogen fuel comes from Montreal’s Air Liquide and cold-weather testing was conducted in northern Manitoba. In addition, ATFCAN is based in Ottawa’s west end.

Ford of Canada President and CEO Bill Osborne (centre) presents a ceremonial key to Noel Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate (left) and Federal Minister of Natural Resources, Gary Lunn, right. Click image to enlarge

Speaker of the Senate Noel Kinsella said the aim of the project – dubbed “Hydrogen on the Hill”- is to “green” the Senate’s operations and make “its environmental footprint sustainable over the long term.” “We hope data from this project will benefit all Canadians and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kinsella.

The buses are powered by a Ford 6.8-litre V10 gasoline engine converted to run on hydrogen. Modifications include valves and valve seats made of hardened metal; more powerful ignition coils; fuel injectors designed specifically for hydrogen; tougher pistons, rings and connecting rods; a more robust head gasket and a twin-screw supercharger and water-to-air intercooler. If you didn’t know a vehicle was powered by hydrogen, you’d be none the wiser, even after hearing it run. The V10 sounds like a normal gas engine and Federal Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn, who piloted the bus around Parliament Hill during our brief ride, said it drove “like any other bus.”

Ford of Canada’s Sam Hashemi said most of the changes were necessary to allow the engine to stand up to hydrogen’s unique combustion characteristics: depending on the purity of the fuel, hydrogen behaves like gasoline with an octane rating of anywhere from 105 to 130.

Ford E450 Hydrogen-powered shuttle bus. Click image to enlarge

“Hydrogen burns much faster than gasoline, with a very fast rate of expansion and it creates much higher combustion pressures than gasoline does,” said Hashemi. “Many of the modifications are similar to those made to diesel engines, like the beefed-up engine block, pistons and rings.” The engine produces 235 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. Redline is 5,000 rpm and the compression ration is 9.4:1.

Hashemi added that tolerances between cylinder walls and piston rings need to be much tighter to keep engine oil out of the combustion chambers. If too much oil is burned, the result is the buildup of carbon deposits in the combustion chamber and an increased chance of premature ignition (or detonation), which can be detrimental to an engine, particularly a supercharged motor with a compression ratio considered normal for a naturally-aspirated motor. The hardened valves are necessary as hydrogen is a “dry” fuel compared to gasoline or natural gas and, as a result, possesses fewer lubrication properties than those more conventional fuels.

The immediate benefit of burning hydrogen is that it produces virtually none of the nasty by-products that result from gasoline combustion, like carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Hashemi said any emissions that do come out of the tailpipe are the result of the minute amount of engine oil that does sneak past the piston rings. And if the hydrogen fuel is created using a renewable source of energy (it can be, but isn’t always), it’s one of the cleanest ways to power a vehicle. One of the common methods of producing hydrogen is to “electrolyze” water, splitting it into pure hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The hydrogen used to run the buses will be produced by electrolysis and through “chemical by-product waste stream production.”

Ford E450 Hydrogen-powered shuttle bus. Click image to enlarge

According to Vance Zanardelli, Ford’s chief engineer for hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines, the shuttle buses can travel about 150 km in the city on a full load of fuel. He admits that’s a limitation, but that the point of the pilot project is to find ways to improve that number. Like a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle, cruising range improves in highway driving. He added that hydrogen-electric hybrid powertrains might be an option in the future.

Another limitation of hydrogen power is the space required for fuel storage. The bus is about the same size as a traditional shuttle bus, but about 40 per cent of what would normally be passenger space is dedicated to the fuel storage system. As a result, seating capacity is limited to just 12 passengers. The buses will be fuelled up at Natural Resources Canada’s fleet vehicle complex on Booth Street in downtown Ottawa; it will take about 12 minutes to fill up each bus.

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