Would Cars Run Better With Water?

Don't laugh. A fuel mixing H20 and naphtha might just work

After two years of hush-hush work with Caterpillar Inc., a small Reno (Nev.) company called A-55 LP is marketing an unusual new fuel for cars, trucks, buses, and diesel generators. It promises to reduce pollution and might also improve mileage. That's mainly because it's diluted with 30% to 55% water. No joke: water. The rest is primarily naphtha, a derivative of crude oil that's typically cheaper than gasoline or diesel fuel, because it needs less refining.

The fuel, called A-55, is the brainchild of Rudolf W. Gunnerman, a Reno inventor who could easily be mistaken for the mad scientist in the movie Back to the Future. He has spent 10 years and $25 million on the fuel, financing its development mainly with royalties from his other patents. Gunnerman's detractors--and there are many--believe his fuel smacks of Tinseltown make-believe. Oil companies aren't impressed. "It's a curiosity, not a technical breakthrough," says Amoco Corp.

TESTING. Despite the skepticism, Gunnerman's single-minded salesmanship has sparked wide interest among environmental agencies and regulators. Thomas M. Houlihan, head of the White House's new Interagency Environmental Technology Office (IETO), got the Energy Dept. and the Environmental Protection Agency involved. Sierra Pacific Power Co. in Reno generated electricity for more than a year with A-55. State and local agencies in California and Nevada continue to test it in a variety of vehicles.

In Australia, Beston-Pacific Corp. of Adelaide recently plunked down $5 million to license A-55. Alexander John Paior, a senior executive with a big Australian law firm, became so enthusiastic he resigned to help Beston-Pacific commercialize A-55. Gunnerman has deals cooking in Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Caterpillar teamed up with Gunnerman in 1994, after a Reno city bus had racked up 11,500 miles--with 20% better mileage than it got on diesel fuel. The claim that A-55 can boost mileage is a sticking point for skeptics. Gunnerman asserts the increase stems from a catalytic reaction that breaks down the water into combustible hydrogen and oxygen. David B. Kittelson, director of the Diesel Research Center at the University of Minnesota, says this requires at least as much energy as is released when the hydrogen burns, "so you don't win."

Researchers have tried adding water to fuel for decades, Kittelson adds. But nobody could make oil and water mix. Gunnerman found a proprietary emulsifier that keeps A-55 mingled for at least a year, he says. To burn A-55, gasoline engines need only minor modifications, mainly in timing controls--a tune-up that runs a couple hundred bucks. Diesel engines require more tinkering.


"SELL THE SYRUP." Last October, Gunnerman decided it was time to take A-55 to market, so he backed out of the venture with Caterpillar. New Mexico may be the next proving ground. Last month, its legislature followed Nevada's 1995 lead in designating A-55 as an alternative fuel. By federal definition, this term excludes anything based on petroleum. Thus, without state action, fleet owners can't substitute A-55 to comply with an EPA mandate to use more alternative fuels. This is a stumbling block in the U.S., which explains why Gunnerman spends so much time overseas.

Gunnerman's scheme calls for setting up local joint-venture companies to make the fuel--and import his proprietary emulsifier. "It's a Coca-Cola situation," says IETO's Houlihan. "Sell the syrup, do the bottling locally." If EPA, Energy, and others agree there's fizz in A-55, it just might work.

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