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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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."