Fuel Of Of The Future? -- Water-Naphtha Mix Hailed As Cheap, Low- Emission Breakthrough, But Scientists Doubt Its Efficiency

------------------------------------------------------------------ Thermodynamics. Inventors who are mixing water with fuel to power engines say they're onto something big. A crackpot idea, say some scientists. Can one of the world's most common compounds make fuel cheaper and cleaner? ------------------------------------------------------------------

On the phone, German-born inventor Rudolf Gunnerman is cordial, witty and savvy. He is the meister of the sound bite, eminently quotable and not the least bit shy about his accomplishment: He's the person, he says without reservation, who found a solution while others pointed to problems.

Inventors like Gunnerman believe that one of the world's most common compounds - good old tap water - can be blended with fuel to power your car, truck or lawn mower. If they're right, you could pay much less at the gas pump. But scientists caution to not believe the hype, which overstates a few, limited benefits of the new fuel.

Gunnerman claims to have devised a means to blend water with naphtha in order to power engines in a cleaner, cheaper, more efficient way.

"New ideas and better ideas are not necessarily found by universities or by large companies. New ideas and better ideas are found by people who look for them," says Gunnerman, 68.

And others are making claims similar to the Reno inventor. A pair of men working out of a garage in the shadow of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport say they mix water with fuel from the gas pump to give race-car drivers "impressive horsepower gains."

Elsewhere, passions flare. Gunnerman's contentions have drawn the ire of scientists who say adding water to fuel is hardly a new invention. The engine types Gunnerman chooses for his demonstrations, they add, are quite forgiving of his fuel mix. More importantly, mixing water with fuel decreases - not increases - fuel efficiency, they say.

David Kittelson, University of Minnesota director of the Center for Diesel Research sighs mightily when called. Kittelson, a professor of mechanical engineering, calls Gunnerman's claims "absolute nonsense. They're violating the second law of thermodynamics."

Water does not burn. Dissociating it into its hydrogen and oxygen parts to attain a burn takes as much - or more - energy than you'd receive.

"It sort of opens up a Pandora's box - that's why I sighed when we first started talking," Kittelson added. "People in universities have an awful lot to do. We're going through periods where we're having dramatic changes in funding structures . . . because of that it's very difficult to do what we're supposed to do and that is sort of seek out the truth. Getting into this water-fuel issue involves a lot of time . . . a lot of time . . . and not much payback."

Michael Seal, director of the Vehicle Research Institute at Bellingham's Western Washington University, agrees. Seal conducts engine research and built an award-winning hybrid vehicle that runs electrically and on natural gas.

Adding 10 gallons of water to 10 gallons of fuel might give only nine gallons of power, Seal said. "I could be wrong - but I'd like to know how I'm wrong. It's pretty well-known that water doesn't burn and there's no way of getting energy from it," Seal said. "Basically, you lose in some way. The best you could hope to do is break even."

"In a way, they are right. In another way they are totally wrong," Gunnerman countered. "They're incorrect in the point they think every fuel burns alike," he said. "I have achieved a better combustion pattern than you get with straight gas or straight diesel."

Infusion of credibility

"Caterpillar" is the single word that brings a degree of credibility to Gunnerman's claims.

The Peoria, Ill.-based heavy- equipment manufacturer entered a joint venture with Gunnerman in July 1994. Together, under the name Advanced Fuels, they've conducted experimental uses of the A-21 fuel - made up of 70 percent naphtha, a crude-oil byproduct, and 30 percent water.

And now, Paccar Inc. is throwing its trucking weight in Gunnerman's corner.

The Bellevue-based manufacturer of Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks recently sent a truck to Peoria for testing with the A-21 fuel. Paccar changed out the engine to add a Caterpillar engine and modified the cylinders and fuel injectors to handle more fluid volume.

They also did a series of baseline tests of noise, cooling, drivability and fuel economy, said Jim Reichman, Paccar's technology-development manager.

Back at Paccar's Mount Vernon technical center, Reichman is enthused. "We're pretty pleased with it," he said. "We've actually had it out and driven it and are in the process of doing some tests on it."

Paccar's goal is to get the truck in a customer's hands to get continuing feedback on its performance.

Caterpillar would not allow photographs to be taken of the beige vehicle, saying the exterior looks no different than any other Peterbilt and the interior changes and specific test results are proprietary information.

Secrecy is not uncommon on the A-21 project or on a local endeavor financed by a South King County pair, Tim Shadduck, 42, and Rick Course, 49. For a demonstration, they fetched a gallon of regular unleaded gas from the station down the street and water from the garden hose, run through a charcoal filter.

"I've got a more exotic filtration. But for demos, this will work fine. We'll do it real backyard style here so there's no question," Shadduck said.

Shadduck uses a clear, viscous emulsifier to suspend water within the fuel. Injecting the "magic bullet" into a container turns the water-fuel mixture milky white. Like Gunnerman, Shadduck reveals little about the biodegradable substance.

He said Gunnerman's fuel "kind of brought down the walls of disbelief," but skeptics abound. "I keep waiting for that big brick wall to come up in front of me and say, `You can't do this.' "

Shadduck eases a brown 1975 Nova, "Injection Research" etched on its side, onto the roadway. He uses a laptop computer to regulate fuel intake and punches the gas pedal to nudge the speedometer arm from 60 mph to 80 mph within seconds.

The pair are targeting race-car drivers, who now pay $5 a gallon for racing fuel.

Gunnerman is expanding his reach to governments that run municipal bus systems, agencies increasingly mindful of more stringent emissions standards in the coming years. For that reason, some are willing to investigate a fuel - and even pay a bit more for higher fuel usage - to meet new guidelines.

A cooler burn

Engineers have known for years that adding water to fuel brings benefits. Water was used in World War II for fueling aircraft. And in the 1970s, General Motors used a water-injection system for its Corvair model, keeping the water in a separate tank, said Dave Schwartz, spokesman for the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Water cools the fuel's flame in the combustion chamber, Schwartz said. A cooler burn reduces the chances of engine-damaging explosions, known as detonations - a fact that hasn't escaped Formula One racers.

And the cooler burn produces less pollutants - especially Oxides of Nitrogen. Known as NOx, Oxides of Nitrogen are produced from elements in the air, in response to heat.

"NOx is a big issue," the University of Minnesota's Kittelson said. "I think the motivation Caterpillar has is the concern about NOx emission. They're trying to get any possible technology for NOx control under their wing so they have options available to them. . . . Faced with very stringent emissions standards that might materialize in the next century, you want to have all the technology."

Plans for expansion

The Regional Transportation Commission in Reno has been running one of its Citifare buses on the A-21 fuel. This fall, they will decide whether to switch more coaches to the mixture, said Michael Steele, Citifare manager.

Dick Cooper, Gunnerman's spokesman, said the company is hoping to extend use of its fuel to West Coast bus fleets including markets in California, Oregon and Seattle. They're estimating fuel costs of 60 to 65 cents per gallon for the naphtha blend, not including local, state and federal taxes.

The Reno coach, equipped with the Detroit Diesel 277-horsepower engine, posted reduced emissions while using the A-21 fuel. Oxides of nitrogen and unburned hydrocarbons, two emissions that are precursors to smog, were below results with diesel fuel. And particulates, a carcinogen, were also reduced. Fuel use increased.

"We did lose some performance; our miles per gallon dropped," Steele said. "The cost could be comparable, or increased, but it's an emission benefit."

But Seal was less giddy. Dramatic improvements are not difficult because federal regulations for diesel engines are lax.

"It's a very easy test to pass, which is why you see diesel trucks belching black smoke on the highway and they're legal," he said. The A-21 test results are "not that exciting."

Using natural gas gives even lower emissions, with negligible readings of unburned hydrocarbons, Seal said.

But burning natural gas brings a new set of distribution headaches.

Paccar has looked at alternate fuels since 1991. Compressed natural gas is slow to fill up and the tanks are heavy. Liquefied natural gas is very cold, about minus 260 degrees, and you've got to go to Canada or Portland to get it.

A-21 "certainly represents a non-diesel energy system that is a lot simpler," Reichman said.