Environment: Hydrogen power could spell end for the petrol engine

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The Independent Online
Car-makers believe the end of the age of the petrol engine is in sight. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, examines the chances of hydrogen becoming the fuel of the future

There seems to be little to be gained for Britain's most popular car- maker to be predicting the demise of its most cherished product - the petrol engine. But in committing nearly pounds 250m to developing hydrogen-fuelled cars, it is exactly what Ford's chairman is saying.

"We view fuel cells one of the most important technologies for the early 21st century," said Sir Alex Trotman. Ford and Daimler Benz - owners of Mercedes - signed a deal earlier this week to pour millions of pounds into a programme to develop a car which runs on the electricity generated by a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.

The only by-products, claim its developers, from this "fuel cell" are water and tiny amounts of carbon dioxide. The expertise is being developed by Canadian company Ballard Power Systems - which despite making many major breakthroughs has yet to make a profit in a decade.

Motor manufacturers have no real choice in taking this road. With oil supplies running out, action to stop global warming as well as politicians mooting taxes to unclog city streets and stem urban pollution, car makers are being pushed to come up with novel solutions.

Sir Alex has been to see Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, to try and convince him that there is no need to tax the motorist out of the driving seat. At the opening of a new pounds 128m environmental research plant at Dunton, Sir Alex said he was "seriously worried" when John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister in charge of transport, had called for the end of the two-car family.

The Ford chairman said he saw nothing conflicting in Ford's claim to be both green and pro-car. Sir Alex went on: "I don't think it's productive to demonise the car. People are not going to get out of their cars. We have to make these cars as customer and environmentally-friendly as we can and in a way that does not damage the economy."

It is clear Sir Alex would prefer that Mr Blair follows the US approach. President Clinton's Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles has seen big car manufacturers fund "blue skies" engine technologies. The partnership influenced California's Air Resources Board to relax plans that would force manufacturers to sell electric vehicles last year.

But the science is some way off reaching the consumer. Mercedes claims some success: it has a running prototype of a fuel cell powered A-class urban car and hopes to produce a four-seat version by 2005. To date, the project has cost Mercedes and Ballard nearly pounds 200m each.