Rudolf W. Gunnerman has a tiger by the tail--the Exxon tiger. If the technology that the 66-year-old inventor has spent $6 million and the past seven years developing lives up to his claims, cars and trucks could one day be running on a fraction of the gasoline and diesel fuel they now use. Ditto for buses, planes, trains, and anything else powered by an internal-combustion engine--from lawn mowers to huge electrical generators.
Gunnerman claims to have a technology that enables engines to burn a mixture of half fuel, half water. Yes, water. What's more, he says, the mixture gets 40% better mileage from the gasoline it contains and emits significantly less pollution because engines run cooler. In particular, tailpipes emit virtually no nitrogen oxides--the principal source of smog.
Sound crazy? Maybe, but Caterpillar Inc. is so intrigued that in early July it formed a joint venture with A-55 LP, Gunnerman's tiny, nine-person company in Reno, Nev. A-55 is short for aqueous 55%, the amount of water by weight in the patented fuels. But the key ingredient is 0.5% of a secret emulsifier that enables fuel and water to mix--and stay mixed. Gunnerman financed his work with royalties from other patents, especially those covering the making of pellets for woodstoves.
NICKEL CATALYST. Caterpillar won't discuss the terms of the deal, except to say it will contribute staff and resources to the new venture, called Advanced Fuels LLC. "It's certainly very exciting technology," says James E. Sibley, Cat's technical manager and acting general manager of the joint venture. "But a lot of work still needs to be done, and a lot of surprises can always crop up as you go to product development."
Why does the fuel result in better mileage? Gunnerman believes the water gets broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen contributes energy to the combustion process. That's because there is one additional trick in his patented process: A small piece of nickel must be attached to the crown of each piston or the top of the cylinder heads. The nickel seems to act as a catalyst in "dissociating" the water, says Gunnerman.
Hogwash, says David B. Kittelson, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. Researchers have been burning 50%-water fuels since the 1940s, and "there's this myth that you're burning the water." Actually, he says, the water just allows the engine to run hotter and not melt. World War II bombers wouldn't have been able to get off the runway without their water-injection turbochargers.
Still, Gunnerman's invention has done well in recent tests. Reno used it to power a city bus for five months. The Air Force put six vehicles through a 14-week obstacle course at its Elmendorf base in Alaska. And the Minnesota Transportation Dept. hosted an event last December featuring five vehicles that journeyed 2,000 miles from Reno.
MILES TO GO. In Reno, city bus No.405 began making its daily runs with Gunnerman's blend on Oct. 5, 1993. It racked up 11,292 miles by Feb. 22, when the engine was removed and shipped to Caterpillar for study. Bruce Anderson, maintenance superintendent of Reno's Regional Transportation Commission, kept tabs on performance and found a 29% increase in mileage per gallon of diesel fuel--with no unusual problems.
In Minnesota, Gregory Felt, chief operations engineer for the state's Transportation Dept., admits he was "the biggest skeptic around." So he asked Gunnerman's team for a live demo: Mix up a fresh batch with local tap water and diesel fuel. When the blend was used to fire up a model 453 engine from Detroit Diesel Inc., "it had the cleanest exhaust I've ever seen coming out of a diesel," says Felt. "If it really does what it seems, this is big."
How big? "If this proves out, it could reduce the U.S. trade deficit by almost half, by eliminating the need to import oil," says John D. Peters, who tracks emerging transportation technology for Minnesota.
Converting an existing gasoline engine to run A-55 fuel would cost less than $500, Gunnerman predicts--including a new fuel-injection control chip that could be programmed to detect the presence or absence of water and adjust operations accordingly. That way, drivers could fill up with regular gasoline if they couldn't find A-55.
Gunnerman's next project: a fuel that would eliminate gasoline altogether. He calls it "X fuel." It's a mix of naphtha and water. Naphtha comes out of the process of refining oil earlier than gasoline, so it costs 50% less. It's enough to send the Exxon tiger into a tizzy.