Breakthrough Technologies

Volatility in gas prices. Concerns over energy security. Worries about climate change. Most drivers see nothing but heartache, but a few enterprising companies and individuals see big opportunities to help car owners get relief—and maybe even usher in a post-petroleum era. It’s hard to determine the veracity of claims about big breakthroughs in technology—such as AFS Trinity Power Corporation’s recent patent application for an "Extreme Hybrid" that gets 250 miles to a gallon or Accelerated Composite’s three-wheeled parallel hybrid promising more than 330 mpgs.

Will any of these "extreme" technologies pan out? Michael Duoba, research engineer at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, explains that even the best ideas might not ever see the light of day. "People who follow hybrid trends may remember Amory Lovins and his “hypercar”concept promising a three- to five-fold increase in fuel economy," said Duoba. "If the case were made that it could be built profitably, then market forces would have made it happen by now."

The dismal odds of finding a significant new market for a gas-saving invention haven’t stopped independent engineers and designers from giving it a shot. We’ve been keeping a file on inventors and their fuel-sipping emission-reducing ideas. Are any of them the big breakthrough we need to break our addiction to oil? We asked our technical advisors for a reality check.

Fuel Tank Additives | The Vibranator | The Air Car | Hydrogen Generating Module | The Manual Integrated Motor Assist (MIMA) Conclusions

Fuel Tank Additives

Miracle gas pills, with names such as EnviroMax Plus, BioPeformance, and Ethos Fuel Saver, claim to "modify the fuel’s molecular structure, liberating the energy contained within." Vague-sounding ingredients in these pills—bio-organic enzymes? high density-dispersants?—promise to increase gas mileage by 20% on average, and by as much as 35%, while reducing carbon monoxide pollution. Can these additives really put more tiger in your tank?

Michael Duoba, Research Engineer, Argonne National Laboratory:
Fuel is optimized to run well in a properly running engine. If oxygenation helps the engine run more like a normal engine, this would save fuel. However, I doubt that any fuel additive used in a new, properly running engine could save any significant amounts of fuel. If there is validity to the claims, it may be that an older, poor performing engine could be improved through additives.

John DeCicco, Senior Fellow and Mechanical Engineer, Environmental Defense
Gasolines themselves now meet tight specifications to which today’s engine management systems have been closely calibrated. Exotic additives are more likely to mess things up than offer any measurable improvement.

Craig Van Batenburg, Master Hybrid Technician, Automotive Career Development Center:
I imagine that some people are still looking for the 200 mpg carburetor that was built in the 1950s and that a car company bought and hid it in a back room. The best device I know of is an alarm clock: get up a little earlier and drive slower to your destination. This will give you a 20% fuel economy improvement at no cost.

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The Vibranator

Inventor Denny Hedges has a design patent on what he calls "The Vibranator." All cars produce reciprocating vibration as they move down the road. The Vibranator replaces a shock absorber, and by applying something called Lenz and Faraday’s Laws, converts wasted energy to usable alternating current for charging hybrid batteries. Can the Vibranator help you shake, rattle, and roll to better mileage?

Michael Duoba:
This idea has been around for some time. It is possible to recover the energy in the shocks normally dissipated as heat (like regenerative braking in hybrids). However the amount of energy that can be recovered may not be worth the expense and mass of the system. Argonne National Laboratory is currently developing a system in an off-road truck application (lots of bumps).

Craig Van Batenburg:
So the pot holes in Massachusetts will finally have value? Yes, I knew we had a cure for everything.

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The Air Car

Guy Negre of France has invented a "zero pollution" car that involves no combustion. The source of power for the car is compressed air stored in tanks. The expansion of this air pushes the pistons and creates movement. In 1992, investors formed a company, Moteur Development International (MDI), to support development of the air car. MDI claims the car can reach a speed of 68 mph, with a range exceeding 125 miles or 8 hours of travel. The tank can be recharged when attached to an air pump in a gas station for only two minutes. Big breakthrough or hot air?

Michael Duoba:
Energy storage and efficient conversion is the key to a viable transportation system. If one looks at the specifications of our current gasoline and diesel systems, those fuels are an obvious choice. I often illustrate this fact by showing the result of a simple calculation when filling your tank at a gas station. The amount of energy transferred to your gas tank in the couple minutes of fill time equates to 10,000 kilowatts, 10 Megawatts! Or if perfectly converted to electrical power, enough for 7,000 to 10,000 homes. It is no wonder that we use gasoline for its ability to store and “recharge” quickly.

The Air Car is limited in its amount of energy storage. It follows that the car design shown is for a “simple light urban car.” That being said, prototypes of “hydraulic hybrids” are now being driven that store braking energy by compressing gas with hydraulic fluid and then forcing the high-pressure fluid through a power-dense pump-motor.

Craig Van Batenburg:
125 miles of air in two minutes? If that is true, why do tires go flat so quickly?

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Hydrogen Generating Module

Joe Williams has developed a machine the size of a small DVD player that he claims will eliminate nearly 100 percent of a vehicle’s emissions. Dubbed the "Hydrogen Generating Module," the device contains a small reservoir of distilled water and other chemicals such as potassium hydroxide. A current is run from the car battery through the liquid. The process of electrolysis creates hydrogen and oxygen gases which are then fed into the engine’s intake manifold where they are mixed with gasoline vapors. By adding hydrogen to the combustion chamber, Williams claims that burning the fuel becomes "97 percent efficient." Hydrogen future or hydrogen pasture?

Michael Duoba:
Joe Williams should get a ticket for attempting to break the first law of thermodynamics. He would actually do better to put a windmill on the roof to charge a hybrid battery. Energy is required to turn water into combustible hydrogen and oxygen so that it can be burned and turned back into water. This process is inefficient and would not improve the mileage of any car. If the claim is to reduce emissions, there are much better applications of advanced technology to reduce emissions than adding hydrogen. Furthermore, if I had a guess what the emissions would be like with the additional of a system like this, it would probably create more NOx than a baseline test. One word, “bunk.” Also, Mythbusters tried it.

John DeCicco:
My favorite line about hydrogen is: "Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and always will be." Actually, the most compact way to get hydrogen into a vehicle is attached to carbon atoms in gasoline or diesel fuel. It’s those pesky carbon atoms that are the problem.

Dave Reuter, Hybrid Systems Engineer:
I am not sure about the validity of the Joe William’s invention, but there is a serious effort happening at a company called ArvinMeritor where they are reforming part of the gasoline from the fuel tank into hydrogen, CO, and nitrogen, and mixing this mixture with the air charge entering the engine and improving the emissions and fuel economy of the engine. News of this device indicates a double digit gain in fuel economy and avoiding having to place even more expensive after-treatments components on the exhaust system to meet tougher emission regulations.

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The Manual Integrated Motor Assist (MIMA)

Mike Dabrowski has created a prototype device called the "Manual Integrated Motor Assist," a device that hacks into the Honda Insight control system and allows both manual and programmable throttle controls for the charging and motor assist functions. The new level of control allows the operator to use the electric drive to top hills without the need to step on the gas, and allows battery recharging when the extra load will have the minimum effect on mileage. The control is through a tiny joystick mounted to the shift lever. Will the MIMA help us get our lives under control?

Michael Duoba:
This would be fun to try out someday. However, this added control may be something only an enthusiast would tolerate and the driver may not always know how to optimize the control. Researchers are now investigating the use of topographical maps as an input to the vehicle’s control systems to optimize operation in hilly terrain. I give it a 1 in 4 chance that it may be in a high-end hybrid within the next 10 years. However, any improvements would not show up in the EPA estimated mileage—so the incentive for an auto manufacturer would only be for the “gee whiz” factor.

Craig Van Batenburg:
This is for real. Buy a used Insight, get the MIMA, and have fun saving gas. (I must admit that I know Mike.)

John DeCicco:
Hmmm, I wonder if that hack would work on my Civic Hybrid 5-speed? On the other hand, I think most folks (myself included) like their car technology to have a manufacturer’s warranty.

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Conclusions: Saving Fuel or Saving Our Soul?

Okay, so despite some valiant efforts and thought-provoking ideas, it doesn’t look like any of the inventions survived our informal peer review. This exercise is not likely to stop small companies and ingenious inventors from their passionate pursuits. Nor should it. In the final analysis, the necessary change in automotive technology falls less on the shoulders of brave visionaries, and more on the conscience of every driver.

John DeCicco explains that efficiency breakthroughs are irrelevant until and unless fuel economy becomes a priority throughout the market. "It’s much easier to fantasize—on paper, with one-off prototypes, and even (helped perhaps by government grants) with demonstration fleets— of breakthroughs than it is to transform a marketplace." DeCicco said, "That’s not a technical problem; it’s an ethical and political one. No amount of invention can save us from ourselves."