Back in 1916, Henry Ford lent a Model T automobile for a year to an inventor who claimed to have discovered a formula for changing water into gasoline. Unfortunately for Ford, the formula did not work.

But ever since, Ford scientists and engineers worldwide have been actively searching for acceptable alternative fuels for motor vehicles. Today, spurred on by the costs of pollution and oil imports in much of the world, they have been working to adapt new engines and power-train technology to fuels other than those derived from petroleum. As a result, Ford cars, trucks, and tractors are now powered by gasoline (petrol), alcohol, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), propane, diesel, and even natural gas.

The latest advance to emerge from Ford's laboratories is a revolutionary Flexible Fuel Vehicle whose engine can burn 100 percent gasoline, alcohol, or any mixture of both without any special action by the driver. The FFV experimental version, which could be produced eventually for public sale by Ford, is seen as having broad potential in countries in which both gasoline and alcohol might be available.

Dr. Roberta Nichols, principal research engineer in the Turbine and Alternative Fuel Department at Ford's research laboratory in Dearborn, sees the new concept freeing drivers in oil-short countries from dependence on petroleum-based fuels. "By enabling cars and trucks to operate on alcohol, gasoline, or any random mixture of both," she says "countries able to produce their own alcohol from coal or natural gas can now gradually phase in an justify the establishment of service stations supplying methanol fuels as well as gasoline. In the final analysis," she adds, "it's much easier to introduce a new automotive fuel without major disruption when vehicles can operate on both the old and the new kind of fuel.

The FFV approach relies on an optical sensor to measure methanol/gasoline ratios and then adjusts fuel flow and spark plug timing through Ford's EEC IV on-board engine computer. The process is entirely automatic, requiring no special driver attention, and allows the gasoline fueling of methanol vehicles whenever necessary.

As a motor vehicle fuel, alcohol may emit less of certain pollutants than pure gasoline or diesel oil. However, the need to ensure quick engine starting, particularly in cold climates, has caused Ford engineers to recommend the inclusion of 15 percent gasoline in methanol fuels for added volatility.

In West Germany, which can legally incorporate three percent methanol in all its gasoline fuels, Ford of Germany recently participated with other German auto companies and the government to test a mixture of 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent alcohol. Although this combination required material changes in the fuel systems as well as carburetor recalibration of the 92 Ford vehicles in the test, the results were judged successful.

Probably the world's most dramatic adaptation to a new fuel technology has occurred in Brazil, which in the last four years has produced and put on its roads more than 1.8 million alcohol fueled motor vehicles. Ford Brazil began studies in '76 to develop an experimental alcohol engine as part of the government's new PROALCOOL national alcohol program. The program sought to reduce the financially draining cost of importing oil to a land-rich nation with few petroleum deposits, and to develop means of converting millions of hectares of marginal crop land to the growing of sugar cane and manioc for conversion into ethyl alcohol. Its success is reflected in figures showing that for the first half of '84, 98.7 percent of Ford Brazil's sales were alcohol-fueled units.

Although Brazil is currently the only major user of alcohol-powered motor vehicles, Ford scientists believe alcohol-driven units, or a version of the presently experimental Flexible Fuel Vehicle, could also find a place on the roads of such tropical sugar-growing climates as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and some Asian countries.

Despite the promise of coal or gas-derived methanol as an alternative to petroleum-based liquid fuels, Ford believes natural gas may offer an attractive near-term fuel option, particularly for fleet operation in industrialized countries. It is currently backing up this belief with a lease fleet of 27 specially equipped '84 Ranger pickup trucks. Modified to run on natural gas, they have been built and delivered by Ford in North America to major gas utility companies for use and evaluation during '84 and '85. The 25 gas companies are located in 13 states and three provinces.

Although vehicle operators have often modified gasoline-fueled vehicles for natural gas, this is the first known time a vehicle manufacturer has built a fleet of such test units specifically designed to operate on natural gas. With the cost of mass producing natural gas engine about the same as that for one fueled by gasoline, the special tubular fiberglass-wrapped aluminum fuel tanks needed for gas storage are the only significant cost penalty compared to traditional engines.

In Canada, where Ford offered the first factory-produced propane (LPG) passenger car, there are $400 federal grants to propane car owners, sales tax concessions, and up to 30 percent fuel cost savings over gasoline. Hence, in this decade, LPG has earned the nickname "the success fuel," particularly in populous Ontario. Although Ford produced propane-powered trucks in North America in the sixties, only during the past of rising gasoline and diesel prices made propane an attractive alternative.

Propane gas is unattractive in some countries because of its unpredictable price fluctuations. Although most vegetable oils require additional and costly refining to convert them to usable fuel, a mixture of degummed soybean oil and diesel fuel is proving extremely effective in Ford-supported tests at the University of Alabama using a turbocharged Ford tractor engine specially modified for direct injection.

Ford research indicates that pure ethyl alcohol should be a very attractive alternate fuel for agricultural machinery. This can be produced primarily from such field crops as sugar cane, manioc, or substandard corn. As the result of more than 20.000 hours of test operation of 10 alcohol-powered tractors in Brazil, Ford scientists conclude that because of its excellent reliability, as well as thermal efficiency equal to comparable diesel engines, alcohol can play an important role in ensuring and increasing the future mechanization of much of the world's agriculture.

Dr. Nichols sums up the outlook: "Despite the variety of alternate fuels, no single fuel is likely universally to replace petroleum-based energy in this century. Because of the great differences among nations in wealth, natural resources, and levels of industrialization, each society will necessarily try to power its motor vehicles with the most cost-effective fuels available."