The $1bn Ford is spending to rid your car of petrol keep your car fuel-free

Alternative Fuels
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The Independent Online

All that fuss over petrol, when the age of petrol may be rapidly coming to an end.

All that fuss over petrol, when the age of petrol may be rapidly coming to an end.

Colossal sums of money are pouring into research on how to replace the 20th century's universal workhorse, the internal combustion engine, with 21st-century equivalents that do not depend on petroleum. The coming change is probably far closer than people realise.

Ford alone is spending $1bn to put a family car on the road by 2004 that runs on hydrogen. The prototype, the P2000, is already driving around, and Ford's chairman, Bill Ford Jr,said it will be this century's Model T, the type from which everything else will follow.

Several technologies are being investigated, by all the big car manufacturers, that will make the importance of the oil industry, and our reliance on its product, dwindle and perhaps vanish. The more far-sighted oil companies - such as Britain's BP (which now stands for "Beyond Petroleum") - are going along with them.

Driving the effort is the pressing need to reduce what comes out of exhaust pipes, with tougher legislation being directed at vehicle emissions. Not so much at the noxious pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and the oxides of nitrogen: they have already been cleaned up considerably by the introduction over the past 15 years of catalytic converters, now standard on all new cars.

The focus of attention now is the basic by-product of the combustion of carbon fuels - carbon dioxide, whose rising levels in the atmosphere are now accepted as bringing about global warming. Road traffic not only produces a third of total CO2 emissions; it represents the fastest-growing emissions sector and the one that most urgently needs to be curbed.

The new engine technologies seek to limit CO2 and then do away with it completely by replacing petrol with a non-carbon source of energy.

First on the list is improvement in the workings of the internal combustion engine itself. All Europe's car manufacturers have signed an agreement to make standard engines 25 per cent more fuel-efficient by 2008, although there are no sanctions if they fail to deliver.

Next is the development of alternative fuels for standard engines. Two are well-established and becoming more familiar: LPG (liquid petroleum gas) and CNG (compressed natural gas). Some Government cars, such as those belonging to John Prescott, who among his other responsibilities is Secretary of State for Transport, run on LPG. The CO2 emissions are lower and the fuels themselves, at least in Britain thanks to tax breaks, are cheaper, but a big drawback is the lack of an infrastructure of suitable filling stations. You might be all right in south-east England, but in North Wales or the Scottish Highlands you could be stuck.

More radical are the coming technologies abandoning oil entirely. One is already here: battery power. Electric vehicles are a reality in Norway and Sweden, where a city runabout called TH!NK has been developed, and is on sale, with the help of investment from Ford.

It can operate in Scandinavia because there is a network of power points drivers can plug into to keep their engines from freezing in extreme cold. In much of the rest of the world, however, no such network exists, and recharging batteries becomes a handicap.

For battery-powered cars can only go so far, and so fast. They produce zero emissions, but as a transportation system they are limited.

Toyota unveiled a partial solution this week: the hybrid Prius, a family car that has both battery and petrol engines. Engage the standard engine for your long, fast motorway drive; hit the city, switch to battery power and see your emissions disappear.

Toyota has sold more than 40,000 of the model in Japan since 1997, and expects 2,000 registrations a year in Britain from what it says is the world's first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. But for environmental groups - and for other motor companies such as Ford - the real path to the future is a more radical one.

The hydrogen fuel cell is the technology that bids fair to make the internal combustion engine a thing of the past, and oil with it. It is a rapidly evolving device that generates electricity by electrochemically combining hydrogen (from a fuel tank) and oxygen (from the air) without combustion. All that comes out of the exhaust pipe is water vapour.

The problem waiting to be solved is the onboard storage of the hydrogen, either in gaseous or liquid form, which at present takes up so much space there is no room for a boot. But an enormous research effort is being devoted to solving this, involving companies such as DaimlerChrysler, Shell and Texaco as well as Ford, which itself has promised a "production-feasible" fuel-cell car in four years' time.

All these companies believe the technology represents the future, and are putting their money where their mouths are. They are not alone. Greenpeace believes hydrogen technology is the way forward. "The age of petrol is going to be replaced by the age of hydrogen," said Stephen Tindale, the policy director of Greenpeace UK. "Hydrogen will be the ultimate transportation fuel."

Support for the view that oil will soon be supplanted also comes from a more unlikely source: Sheikh Yamani, the one-time Saudi oil minister who spoke for Opec in the 1970s when the cartel was at the summit of its power and influence.

He warned the oil producing nations last week that the return to $30 a barrel crude has only hastened the day when the oil era will close. "The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil," he remarked, warning that hybrid engines and hydrogen fuel-cells will drastically cut petrol consumption. "Technology is a real enemy for Opec," he said. "The real victims will be countries like Saudi Arabia with huge reserves which they can do nothing with - the oil will stay in the ground for ever."