By Warren Brown
Sunday, August 26, 2007
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. Gerald Rowley keeps his dreams in his garage. There, on a quiet street in this southeast Florida town, he stores an aging Mazda 626 sedan, cream white with a worn interior, unremarkable in nearly all respects with the exception of a precisely machined, one-gallon steel box in the trunk connected to fuel lines leading to a gasoline vaporizing device under the hood.
The steel box holds one gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. The device beneath the hood is called the VFS, Vaporizing Fuel System--not the most elegant name, but one considerably more acceptable and descriptive than the "Vapster" badge Rowley originally stuck on his invention.
I came here to drive Rowley's VFS-equipped car. For years, I had spurned the invitations of homespun inventors worldwide to travel to distant points to witness first-hand machines that could deliver 100 miles per gallon or 200 miles per gallon.
The claims sounded too incredible to believe -- ridiculous, in fact. If such devices really worked, really did what their inventors said they did, why would they still be sitting on shelves in anonymous workshops -- ignored by the driving public and all of the vehicle manufacturers who serve them? What automobile manufacturer in its right mind, especially with rising concerns about future oil availability and with gasoline prices escalating worldwide, would not jump at the opportunity to acquire a device that delivered 100 miles per gallon?
The inventors' claims didn't make sense. So, I did what any sensible, hardened journalist would do. I ignored them.
But then a good friend, Sasha Tapie, a computer geek and an absolute nut about fuel efficiency, called me boasting about yet another "fantastic" fuel-saving device "you have to see to believe."
Sasha is a master salesman. He could sell God heaven at a higher price and make the Almighty believe He got a deal.
"You just can't brush this off," said Sasha, who, as usual, had a financial interest in the project he was extolling. "You just can't walk away from this without at least driving it yourself. You are a better journalist than that."
You can sell anybody, especially a journalist, by appealing to ego. I was sold. And so here I was with Rowley, a man who grew up making race car engines, standing in front of his VFS-equipped car, ready to do something that defied common sense -- take a long ride in an old car down a Florida highway on one gallon of gas.
But, first, a primer: Rowley's patented device is nothing new. It's just the latest iteration of an idea already developed by others -- the notion that you could get more miles per gallon out of a traditional gasoline engine if you pre-heated the fuel to about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, thus turning it into a vapor before it enters the combustion chamber.
Vaporized fuel, when properly mixed with air, burns more efficiently, saves fuel and emits fewer tailpipe pollutants than traditional fuel-air mixtures in which gasoline is sprayed into a combustion chamber in tiny droplets and then mixed with air before burning.
All car companies know this. Most have sought to increase combustion efficiency by swirling gasoline in intake valves before mixing it with air and by using computers to more precisely open and close engine intake and exhaust valves to better meter fuel-air mixtures. The manufacturers' rapid-swirl, electronically controlled variable-valve lift technology has brought about substantial increases in fuel efficiency--but nothing near the reported 40 percent to 60 percent improvements in efficiency touted by inventors of the pre-heating, fuel vaporizing equipment.
It turned out that the steel box in the trunk of Rowley's old Mazda 626 had an on-off valve leading to a separate fuel line. The car's original fuel line was connected to a larger fuel tank.
"Don't worry," Rowley assured me. "When we run out of fuel in the gasoline cell [the steel box] the car will coast to a stop. I'll get out and switch the valve to the regular tank. We won't get stranded."
I was relieved.
Powered by the fuel in the test-control box, we entered a nearby highway and cruised at a steady pace of 65 mph for 45 miles before the engine sputtered and died, forcing us to coast to a roadway shoulder. I was impressed. That early 1990s Mazda 626 normally would have gotten 30 miles per gallon under those conditions. Rowley's device yielded a 50 percent improvement. It worked. Or, at least, it certainly seemed to work.
Other fuel vaporizer pioneers, such as Canadian engineer Charles Nelson Pogue, inventor of the double-chamber Pogue Carburetor, have made similar claims about their fuel vaporizing devices. And their claims are framed with conspiracy theories about why such technology remains isolated, generally removed from the marketplace. Pogue has pointed a finger at oil companies, allegedly working to keep fuel-efficient technology off the market. Others have accused the car companies of ignoring the technology to protect their multibillion-dollar investments in their current gasoline-engine infrastructure.
There is no proof behind any of those allegations. And, as I pointed out earlier, the car companies have not ignored the idea of getting a more efficient burn through a more thorough vaporization of fuel entering combustion chambers.
The real problem?
My guess is that it has everything to do with our increasingly litigious culture, which is woefully intolerant of the trial-and-error nature of anything related to invention and innovation. What happens to those fuel vaporizers in a crash? What is the increased potential of fire and explosion? How do you maintain government-mandated fuel system integrity with a bolted-on fuel vaporizing device? Is there any increase in ambient gasoline vapor emissions with the vaporizers? Who gets sued if a vaporizer fails and someone is injured or killed, or if a state or federal agency determines that ambient emissions from the devices violate clean-air standards? Who carries the legal and financial weight?
Inventors tend to be shallow-pocket solo artists, men and women with big ideas absent big boards of directors and large shareholder groups. Inventors have more freedom to take chances. Corporations are different. They have deep pockets, which makes them big litigation targets. They are well aware that a good deed gone wrong, even for a moment, can lead to a big and potentially ruinous lawsuit. As a result, they tread more carefully, which means it will be a long while before any of them is willing to take a risk with an externally mounted fuel vaporizing device.