ROMULUS, MI – The road to the hydrogen infrastructure – and the ultimate proliferation of hydrogen-powered vehicles – is fraught with obstacles, including regulations governing refueling sites, says a top Ford Motor Co. engineer.

For several years, Ford has been producing commercial E-450 shuttle buses equipped with a 6.8L SOHC V-10 hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine (ICE). The fleet, which totals 30 vehicles, is dispersed throughout North America, with the buses put into service at airports and tourist attractions in order to pile up as many real-world miles as possible.

The buses carry 66.1 lbs. (30 kg) of hydrogen and boast a range of 150-200 miles (241-322 km). They emit 1/100th of the carbon dioxide spewed from the tailpipe of a full hybrid-electric vehicle, Ford says.

To date, Ford has leased the hydrogen buses to the Greater Orlando Airport Authority, Orlando Convention Central District, SeaWorld Orlando, University of Missouri Raleigh, the city of Las Vegas, the San Mateo (CA) County Transportation Authority and Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Ten of the vehicles were shipped to Canada for use in Prince Edward Island, Ottawa and Vancouver.

Most of the locations are equipped with hydrogen fueling stations, while remaining sites already have firm plans to build the needed facilities. However, other sites Ford has selected as potential test grounds remain without buses due to a lack of regulations.

“When you go to permit a hydrogen station, a lot of places don’t have the codes and standards to address that,” says John Lapetz, manager-engine and processes.

“If you think about it, why would they?” he adds. “They might have (codes) for gaseous fuels such as propane and natural gas. But hydrogen, not so much.”

The lack of regulations has put kinks in Ford’s bus dispersal plan, which centers on placing the units in a variety of climates.

In some cases, mobile refueling stations can address the problem. But regulations will need to be written if the U.S. is to see widespread availability of hydrogen vehicles, says Lapetz, on hand at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport here for a ceremony marking delivery of two of the hydrogen buses.

Cost is another hurdle that must be cleared. In some cases Ford has worked with local governments or energy providers such as BP plc and Chevron Corp. to subsidize the cost of developing a hydrogen infrastructure.

However, making a business case for a hydrogen fueling station is challenging, Lapetz says.

“It’s a difficult struggle, because from an infrastructure point of view it’s a huge capital investment,” he says, noting that having just a few hydrogen vehicles to refuel makes the extravagant cost of a pump hardly worthwhile.

“In Orlando, we have eight buses fueling at one station,” Lapetz says. “So what they’ve done is put a real load on that station. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with some of the other locations, but it’s just very difficult.”

Ford is making no money from the leases, as the $250,000 fee covers only the cost of building one bus, the auto maker says.

Meanwhile, Lapetz says cars powered by hydrogen ICE engines could help the auto maker meet upcoming corporate average fuel economy standards of 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020.

But the gains are more difficult in the light-vehicle arena, because passenger cars already are more fuel-efficient than buses and there isn’t as much potential for hydrogen storage capacity, Lapetz says.

“But there’s clearly nothing that says this technology can’t be migrated to other platforms,” he says.

Some critics argue hydrogen is not an ideal alternative to gasoline, because it primarily is produced using the very fossil fuels it is supposed to replace.

Lapetz says ideally Ford would like to see hydrogen derived from renewable energy sources such as wind or waterpower.

“Right now, the infrastructure to produce hydrogen in the kind of quantities we would like to have to fuel buses falls back to natural gas,” he says. “But if we get the demand going, people will see a reason to invest in things like electrolyzers (to produce hydrogen fuel from water). And then we’ll start to see growth.”

bpope@wardsauto.com