Ford Motor Co. is Diverting Some financial resources from its hydrogen fuel-cell program toward alternative powertrain technologies that are more achievable in the short-term, such as electric vehicles, a top engineer says.

“We've clearly demonstrated the viability of (hydrogen fuel cells) as a propulsion system, but not as a business equation,” Scott Staley, chief engineer, hybrid- and fuel-cell technology development, tells Ward's. “That's a bit of a problem for the company, considering the (financial) situation it is in.”

Ford, which lost $14.8 billion in 2008, is attempting to sidestep the government loans that cross-town rivals General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC are relying on to stay afloat amid the current economic downturn. However, the redistribution of hydrogen-fuel-cell funds does not mean the auto maker has pulled back entirely from its research, Staley says.

“We're refocusing our fuel-cell research to concentrate on fundamental issues,” he says. Attention is moving away from product development and more on laboratories, where engineers and scientists are working on solving problems that continue to plague the technology. The most significant obstacle standing in the way of the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cells is cost.

“The stack, itself, operates on the physics of platinum,” Staley says. “We have to get the amount of platinum down significantly and simplify the rest of the propulsion system.”

Engineers also continue to have problems getting the fuel cells to operate in cold conditions, which Staley says is an inherent problem for a technology that combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity.

Additionally, Ford needs more time to develop a better way to manufacture hydrogen-powered cars, as its present method of hand-building demonstration models is time consuming and costly. The reallocation of hydrogen-research funds may mean a pull-back on such vehicles, which just two years ago Ford, along with other auto makers, was highly publicizing.