By Ken Miller
GANNETT NEWS SERVICE
RENO, Nev. -- It seems too good
to be true, but rigorous tests under way in Nevada, California and Illinois show a breakthrough fuel that is more than half tap water could power the nation's vehicles, train
s and gas-powered aircraft by century's end.
The milky fuel was developed by Reno inventor Rudolf Gunnerman and is being pushed through the federal fuels-testing labyrinth by Gunnerman and diesel giant Caterpillar Inc. It has passed every test thro wn at it.
In virtually all categories, it tops conventional gasoline and diesel as a clean, cheap and safe fuel that can be used in almost any combustion engine. If it works -- and disinterested outsiders who have tested it say it may -- drivers could see the price of gasoline cut more than half.
``Everybody said it cannot work, that I'm a fraud,'' the German-born inventor said, beginning an interview with the obligatory denial that he's a crackpot.
No one's laughing now: Nevada last November certified the water-based fuel as a ``clean alternative fuel,'' meaning it can be used to meet federal mandates requiring clean fuels in fleets and other vehic les.
The Energy Department is awaiting test data from trials run by Caterpillar before passing judgment. If DOE reaches the same conclusion as Nevada, Gunnerman's concoction could be used as a clean fuel in a ll states.
Emission trials in Nevada show the fuel not only surpasses Environmental Protection Agency tailpipe standards, but also the next two rounds of tough California Air Resources Board standards reaching deep into the next century.
Tests show a 60 percent drop in EPA-monitored emissions of such pollutants as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide or NOX, a component of smog.
Furthermore, it is made out of a plentiful clear liquid, naphtha, produced in early stages of petroleum refining, skipping the later processes that produce various grades of diesel and gasoline.
The fuel can be interchanged with today's conventional fuels, meaning converted vehicles can run on either fuel with no change in performance but improved mileage and substantial exhaust reductions.
Other benefits that have surfaced in development and field trials of the ``A-21'' (aqueous fuel for the 21st century) fuel:
At the refinery, naphtha, used today as a hardener in road tars, is siphoned off and trucked or piped to a blending facility to be mixed with water to produce the fuel. That eliminates up to 90 percen t of refinery pollutants.
Naphtha is easier to extract from sources such as oil shale and sand tars, meaning those hard-to-work sources could be exploited. As the amount of petroleum in gasoline falls, so do oil imports.
Once mixed with the water and a tiny amount of an agent to keep the naphtha and water from separating, the fuel has a ``vapor pressure'' of about one-fifth that of gasoline. That means vapor-recovery systems won't be needed at the pump. Because gasoline vapor is what catches fire, this fuel is virtually immune to explosions and fire.
The fuel can be used in any diesel or spark-ignited engine. That includes train locomotives, which currently use a billion gallons of fuel a year; certain aircraft; recreational vehicles; and diesel g enerators, which must be limited today due to their high emissions.
Gunnerman, who spent eight years finding a way to keep water and fuel blended, admits the new A-21 fuel might still be dismissed as a fraud if not for the considerable clout of Caterpillar, which is bank ing on the fuel to help it win back diesel business lost to Detroit through the years.
He said his giant partner ``has been very helpful in legitimizing me. . . . It's easier if 52,000 people are out there fighting the battle with you.''
His company, A-55 Limited Partnership, joined Caterpillar's Engine Division in 1994 to form Advanced Fuels, a venture to test and market the new fuel.
Tests on a city bus in Reno, on a free-standing power generator that for four months has been feeding electricity to Reno's electric grid, on generators at Cat's Illinois plants, and now in public and pr ivate vehicle fleets in Sacramento show A-21 works as claimed.
``The Advanced Fuels joint venture is one we entered into because we believe this fuel is one of the most promising alternative fuels that's out there today,'' said Caterpillar spokeswoman Marsha Hausser . She said Caterpillar is testing other fuels, but ``we've been pleased with the test results we have seen so far. We do have more tests to conduct, and we want to verify in our minds in the long term that this is a viable alternative.
``Any time you have an alternative that is cleaner burning, less flammable, and allows you to operate an engine more efficiently, that's a significant advance,'' Hausser said. Test results remain confide ntial, she said.
Alan Stout of EPA's National Fuel and Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., said his lab has been watching the A-21 story develop. While he questioned whether this new fuel could replace conventional fuels in the short term, he said EPA continues to monitor tests on fleets.
The most frequently heard concern is that, with so much water, A-21 might be prone to freezing or cold-start problems. After testing earlier formulas, enough antifreeze was added that test vehicles have not had problems in the cold. Industry analysts also say it may require a small amount of ethanol in the blend for storage in tanks to winterize it for temperatures of at least 40 below zero.
Examining a prototype ``automated blending facility'' that is about to start mixing 40,000 gallons of fuel daily, Gunnerman said the major hurdle before the fuel will start showing up at gas stations is Energy Department certification that it qualifies as a clean alternative fuel.
``How fast we'll do it will not depend alone on Cat and us,'' Gunnerman said. ``It will also depend on DOE and EPA and how fast we can push it.''
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