Inventor Joe Valdespino, trying to bridle hydrogen as a fuel for the masses, believes he has a solution to any future gas shortage--an engine that runs on hydrogen converted from simple ammonia.
"This could be the very biggest thing in the world at the right time," said Valdespino.
However, the right time hasn't come yet. As the recent oil glut drove gasoline prices down, Valdespino admitted his engine did not generate much excitement.
"Synthetic fuels were in and they will be again," Valdespino said. "It's just a matter of time. I figure in a couple of years, the price of gasoline will go up to 2 bucks a gallon."
When and if that happens, Valdespino hopes his invention will take hold. He has the support of some researchers and has roused the curiosity of automobile manufacturers.
Ultimate Power Source
Using hydrogen as a source of power is nothing new. In fact, it is considered the ultimate power source because it burns cleaner than gasoline and is much more efficient. But pure hydrogen is very expensive and dangerous to store. It can be produced several ways, including the decomposition of water.
Mercedes Benz has tested a hydrogen engine for two years on a van and several passenger cars in Germany.
Unlike Valdespino's engine, which uses ammonia as its base fuel, raw hydrogen is pumped into the Mercedes engine. It has several major drawbacks--it requires a prohibitively heavy "hydride bed" to absorb and distribute the hydrogen, and the hydrogen must kept under tight, constant pressure.
"It runs, but it's not economical," said Paul Studzinski, a researcher at Mercedes headquarters in Montvale, N.J. "It's there as a demonstration to show that it can be done."
Hydrogen is also explosive.
People remember the fate of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg that burned, killing 36 people.
Ammonia is a byproduct of natural gas and coal. Its cost is competitive with the price of oil and has been cheaper by half in recent years. Currently, 75% of all ammonia in the United States is used as fertilizer. A small portion is used in household ammonia.
"People have worked on hydrogen engines for a long time and people have worked on burning ammonia for a long time," said Michael Boerma, president of Michigan Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
"The hydrogen-fueled vehicle is very attractive because of low emissions, but there is a problem in storage because hydrogen is so highly volatile and highly flammable. The problem with ammonia is that while it's easy to store, it's not all that easy to burn."
What makes Valdespino's invention stand apart from the crowd, he says, is the on-board conversion of ammonia into hydrogen.
The anhydrous ammonia, which consists of three parts hydrogen to one part nitrogen, is stored in a tank. Heat separates out the hydrogen and forces it through a catalyst into the engine, which operates off the hydrogen.
The engine can run off the hydrogen only or in conjunction with gasoline, Valdespino said.
He has even experimented with using the residual ammonia to clean the windshield.
"I think it's relatively exciting," said Boerma, whose laboratory began testing Valdespino's earliest hydrogen-engine model in 1979. "It will, in the future, have a place in internal combustion. What that place will be I'm not certain. But I think it definitely has some potential."
Valdespino, 57, is best described as a character. He has a quick wit, a gregarious sense of life and, judging from his number of inventions, a brilliant mind.
He has listed his occupation as "inventor" since the mid-1960s, when he left his job as a sewer-plant operator in Orlando.
In the little shop behind his house, Valdespino has invented lawn mowers, water pumps, a clothes washer that works on water power only and a device to recover oil spills. He's lost count of his patents, although he says they number more than 100.
"He's a man who is an independent individualist," said lawyer James Robinson, a longtime friend of Valdespino and an investor in his projects. "He's unique in that he sees a problem and attacks it. Ideas come to him. He'll try anything and everything and keep experimenting until he comes to it.
"He has an artistic background, and he has that kind of temperament. He's creative. I guess that sums it up."
------------------ Valdespino began work on the ammonia-hydrogen engine in 1979. He's struggled with it, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his and his investors' money and even put his life on the line.
"I've had some explosions at my shop," Valdespino says matter-of-factly. "Blew the back door in once. Some of the stuff landed two blocks away. It gets hairy playing with this stuff, but you take it in stride if you're in this business."
After toiling on his engine for six years, Valdespino owns five patents on it and another is pending.
The Environmental Protection Agency took a quick look at the engine last year and liked what it saw.
"The ammonia engine might be something we'd want by the second or third decade of the 21st Century," said Ronald Bradow, an EPA research chemist who tested Valdespino's engine in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
"The main thing is that ammonia is not a carbon-based fuel, which makes it fundamentally sounder than any other form of fuel. Anhydrous ammonia is one of the biggest chemical fertilizers in the world. Of all the chemicals you could have, it's probably one of the safer substances. I think it's a very good idea to move in that direction."
Needs More Refinement
Bradow said he considers the engine "promising" but it needs more refinement, including a better catalyst--Valdespino uses steel wool--and automation. Currently the operator has to make constant adjustments to keep the engine going.
Auto makers seeking alternative fuels have worked with ethanol and methanol--both carbon-based fuels. Electric cars raised hopes for a while but all of those have fallen out of the spotlight with the recent oil glut.
A spokesman for General Motors said his company has not heard of Valdespino's invention but expressed an interest in it.
"We have worked on hydrogen in the past," said GM spokesman William Knight in Detroit. "We'd be glad to evaluate it. But we know it is not viable (now) for a couple of reasons, the main one being the price of petroleum."
Mercedes researcher Studzinski was somewhat skeptical.
"The wheel is being invented again every year," Studzinski said.
Valdespino maintains the auto makers will ignore his work because they have poured lots of research money into ethanol and methanol. Knight said the ammonia-run engine could pose a great distribution problem but stopped short of saying it would not work.
Valdespino said the next step might be using his work on stationary engines, perhaps at a power plant.
To be used in automobiles, the engine would have to be automated and a great many kinks worked out. After that, he would hope to line up a company with a fleet of vehicles and its own fuel supply to test the engine in the field.
However, it could cost upwards of $700,000 to reach that point, Valdespino said.
People have asked and Valdespino has considered selling the rights to his engine. He said he's grown a bit tired of it all.
"Whether we'll make a deal, I don't know," said Robinson. "It's very complicated when you get into the business aspects of it."