Inventor Steve Ryan’s mission is to give the world exactly what it’s looking for. The hunt for solutions to our global pollution crisis has become the scientific race of the century. Even global warming sceptics such as National’s John Key are opportunistically rebranding themselves as eco-crusaders, under the weight of public concern. Labour’s new Minister for Climate Change, David Parker, has thrown down the gauntlet by introducing drastic new carbon-reducing legislation. Suddenly, costly changes to industry and consumerism stonewalled for decades are moving into top gear.
Some say the window of opportunity to reverse ecological damage, has closed. Scientific luminaries such as Ecologist magazine progenitor Ted Goldsmith and Gaia hypothesist James Lovelock believe the planet is actively dying. Given that there is no way to un-create the toxic elements we have released, they conclude the earth is simply too poisoned to survive.
Steve Ryan, however, believes it is a waste of time to lay guilt upon the average consumer, who is at the end of the food chain in terms of carbon consumption. In the example of automotive fuel, Ryan’s speciality, consumer choice is between high or low octane petrol, diesel or petroleum gas. All carbon-based, all alleged greenhouse pollutants. The only ‘green’ option is not fuelling up at all, and bussing or walking to work.
Yet the survival of our economy depends greatly on mobility and our uptake of industrial output. We are pressured to consume, even more than we are pressured to pollute less. Whilst the consumer’s ability to reduce global warming is limited to selecting the lesser evil, the producer has the ability to introduce carbon-free products to the marketplace.
Enter Biosfuel, Ryan’s Auckland based company. TV3’s 60 Minutes profiled one of Biosfuel’s key developments, a water-based alternative fuel in October 2005. Whilst revealing little of the processes involved, Ryan took the film crew through the stages of converting ordinary tap water into a hydrogen-enriched liquid capable of igniting in a combustion engine. Whilst hydrogen is already used internationally as a fuel in hybrid electric vehicles, no one has managed to utilise it while still within water, for use in a standard engine.
This makes Ryan’s claims either an astounding achievement or an imaginative fantasy. In spite of scrupulously checking each stage of the process from tap to fuel tank and finding no covert ingredients, 60 Minutes grilled Ryan on the unlikelihood of such a scientific breakthrough being genuine. Ryan’s retort was succinct; it doesn’t matter what people think, it’s happening. Having the fuel tested without revealing the IP is problematic.
Eighteen months after the TV3 documentary, and Biosfuel’s promise of “the fuel of the future”, a visit to the company’s laboratories finds Ryan and his team of four still at work on a raft of projects, including fuel saving devices, biodiesel blends, ecological batteries and various forms of hydrogen and hybrid fuels, including the water fuel. I received an extensive guided tour leaving little undisclosed except some stages of the water treatment including the names of key metals used.
Nothing suggested an elaborate ruse in process. The water fuel can be observed in action and to appease the suspicious, fuel tanks and engines can be checked for hidden ingredients. The lab costs an excess of $10,000 a month to run, an unlikely amount to splurge on quackery. It has snowballed to this level since 2002, when Ryan decided the results he was achieving meant he better stop tinkering and start devoting his energy solely to developing the technology he discovered.
Since 60 Minutes, much of Ryan’s feedback has been incredulous, frequently accusing him of faking a quantum leap in science. Obviously used to criticism he quietly counters this by pointing out that every area of science has advanced over the decades in gradual stages, so that technology seemingly implausible twenty years ago is accepted today. Except where energy technology is concerned. Here, science has remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century.
He has a point. We have all witnessed the growth of bizarre science; genetic engineering, face transplants, thought-directed bionic limbs, conversations via satellite and the paradigm-shattering realm of sub-atomic physics. Our initial disbelief and, at times, horror, inevitably mutes to acceptance. Yet we maintain a paradoxical suspicion of new energies and fuels. Consequently, society remains stuck with the same automotive fuel used by Henry Ford, and the same solid fuel (coal) used to power the first steam engines.
If Ryan’s company is indeed one to assist bringing energy technology into the 21st century, it couldn’t have come at a more receptive time. Not only are politicians vying for environmentalist status, but corporations like BP are undergoing ‘green’ image makeovers. While renaming itself Beyond Petroleum, BP gets to deal in the same dirty oil whilst refocusing attention on its resplendent green flower logo. Irony aside, the acknowledgement from industry and government is a recognition that our transportation future must involve something other than oil.
In spite of this apparent mood for change, receptivity toward the water-fuel has been anything but welcoming. Ryan’s obvious prerogative has been to have his fuel validated. Securing a patent is one way to achieve this, the other is to have university, government-sponsored and industry research laboratories test the fuel. But by the time I talked to Ryan, neither patents nor lab tests had been achieved. Ryan is not shy about his product, and provided non-disclosure agreements are signed, he welcomes scrutiny. The problem lies in getting anyone in a position of some authority to be interested.
Pursuing international patents exposed a seldom-used clause in the regulations, enabling the governments of NZ, Australia, China, Canada and the USA to with-hold patent applications, denying even the inventor the right to utilise their design for up to twenty years. The object is to protect national security from destructive new technology. Whilst the water-fuel itself is benign, Ryan is aware of the repercussions a cheap, oil-free fuel could have on core infrastructure relationships between governments, petrocorps and the transport network.
Even the slight possibility restrictions could be imposed caused Ryan to forego patents in favour of authorised lab testing. Among those approached was noted academic, Dr. Robert Raine of Auckland University Engineering Department. His speciality is the combustion engine and all that relates to it, including alternative fuels. The lab he superintends is one of the country’s premier facilities for testing emissions and new fuel developments.
At 60 Minutes request, Raine looked over some emissions data provided by a Biosfuel engineer. The data indicates the composition of a fuel by analysing chemicals present in its exhaust. Dr. Raine suggested levels of carbon in the water-fuels emissions bore similarity to fossil fuels. As carbon is not a constituent of water he suspected the presence of other fuel ingredients. 60 Minutes phoned Ryan, asking him to be at the TV Studio in 40 minutes to offer his rebuttal. A quick phone call to his engineer and an oil company representative confirmed Ryan’s own theory that old sump oil in the motorbike he used for fuel testing was the likely source of the carbon contamination. Unfortunately the oil company representative was not prepared to state this on camera.
This explanation failed to impress Raine, who recommended Ryan prove his point by releasing the water-fuel formula to the world, a gesture he defined as ‘for the good of (Ryan’s) own soul’. Curious as to why Raine didn’t solve the matter simply by testing the fuel on his own equipment, I arranged an interview.
Dr. Raine has been invested with a lot of responsibility by our government. He heads a task force charged with nutting out a way to reduce and clean up New Zealand’s vehicle emissions. His current proposals for reducing national carbon output include increasing petrol and road-user taxes, outlawing vehicles over 15 years old, and beefing up W.O.F. requirements for clean engines.
In response to my question Raine described how over the years he’s seen a lot of ‘Steve Ryans’ come and go. Self-styled inventors claiming to have achieved breakthroughs that thousands of well paid scientists around the world have not. He believes they often want nothing more than the 15 minutes of fame afforded them through association with men of credibility such as Raine. Notwithstanding this possibility, I asked if he’d clear up the ambiguity by running the water fuel through some tests, given the urgency of our need for non-polluting fuels, and the public interest created by 60 Minutes.
Raine acknowledged his lab was used not infrequently to test new fuels and engines, often by private developers under considerable secrecy. There was nothing to prevent Ryan applying to have his fuel tested, provided a fee of approximately $20,000 was paid in advance. This seemed a fairly prohibitive sum for a University to charge, ruling out many independent researchers.
On the other hand, many other product developers have to stump up with sums like these to test ideas that, whilst they may be good for society, are also good for the developer’s bank balance if successful. With operating costs of $10000 per month, Raine’s fee doesn’t seem unreachable for Biosfuel. Ryan countered that these expenses relate to set-up costs averaged out, and not an available monthly budget, which remains very tight.
Nonetheless, I asked Raine whether it was the responsibility of publicly funded laboratories to have more of an open-door policy toward investigating developments that might result in Greenhouse solutions.
Raine’s response was somewhat jaded, inferring that as the line between public and private blurs, national assets like his laboratory are increasingly forced to operate as businesses. He added that although his mandate includes selection of research projects, and even fee waivers where he recognises sufficient merit, his understanding of energy circumscribed by the first two laws of thermodynamics prevents him from investigating Ryan’s fuel because in theory he believes it to be impossible.
Thermodynamics delineates the amount of energy obtainable from any substance, for example water, as relative to the time, effort and materials it takes to extract the energy out. Every bit of energy released, whether it’s the calories in a piece of chocolate, or the hydrogen element in water, has first had energy put in. According to Raine, the bottom line has been reached regarding the energy potential within water, and its thermodynamic equation shows too much energy goes into extracting the hydrogen, than it is worth as an energy provider.
Yet hydrogen is routinely described as the fuel of the future. Scientists predicted its use as earth’s primary energy source as far back as the 1800’s. It makes sense, as hydrogen accounts for ninety-two percent of all matter in the universe. Whilst we have released tremendous amounts of energy by splitting the hydrogen atom, as in the H bomb, to date efforts to utilise the resident energy in water have not been realised.
But Ryan claims to have found a novel way of making the hydrogen available, excluding the need for electric current to break open the water molecule. His method requires no electrical input. Moreover, it retains the hydrogen in its water matrix, removing the other inefficiency of the need to store and utilise the collected hydrogen as a gas. Raine categorically denied this was possible, and no amount of visual testimonies would inspire him to investigate the matter further.
For a second academic opinion I approached Raine’s distant colleague, Dr. Ralph Simms, Director of Energy Research at Massey University. Simms presented a more optimistic view of renegade physics when asked to comment on Ryan’s technology by 60 Minutes. A self-described futurist, Simms calculates the world’s rapidly increasing future energy requirements and researches ways to meet demand without proportionally increasing global warming.
Lately much of his time is spent in Paris where he acts as energy consultant to European heads of government. He seemed open-minded concerning the likelihood a breakthrough in energy technology might come from left-field as in the case of Biosfuel, alluding to the infamous ‘backyard inventor’ attribute of Kiwi folklore. These comments amounted to an olive branch from academia to the maligned Biosfuel. As Simms had not actually witnessed the fuel in operation, Ryan responded by sending him a volley of invitations to visit the lab. Simms is in the perfect position to put Ryan’s fuel to the test, perhaps incorporating it into this department’s research programme, the goal of which is the creation of fuels for the future.
As Ryan had not yet received a response I contacted Simms to enquire whether he intended to investigate Biosfuel further, and was surprised to receive a categorical ‘no’. Without explanation of his attitude shift, Simms defended his lack of interest reciting the same thermodynamic laws. His knowledge of energy-science enables him to pass judgement on the water-fuel without laying eyes on it. With good-humoured emphasis he put the odds of Ryan’s fuel being genuine at “not a million to one, but a billion to one”.
That puts anyone who has driven down the road in a vehicle powered by Ryan’s altered water, in a difficult position, no one has done this except with the motorbike. I pushed the point with Dr. Simms, angling for a third option that within the sweeping realm of science, room exists for an as yet unexplained energy extraction from water. I related as much of the water-fuel’s formula as Ryan had allowed me to see. That hydrogen was entrained in the water through a catalytic metal reaction, not electrolysis. The longer it was left, the more hydrogen enriched it became. While Simms’ response didn’t altogether rule out the possibility Ryan was getting increased energy out, he remained adamant he must correspondingly have put more energy in than he was admitting. Simms assured me it would take more energy to break the H-O bond than was contained in the bond itself.
Other institutes approached such as Auckland’s Carrington Tech reneged on initial expressions of interest in testing the water-fuel for similar reasons. No amount of visual testimony was sufficient to entice them to investigate Ryan’s methods. From academia’s perspective, the fuels of the future are blends of biodiesel. Dr. Raine favours beef tallow as a raw material, and Dr. Simms the vast oilseed crops his department is cultivating around the Manawatu. But these alternatives have severe limitations of their own. Firstly, they emit CO2, the “Greenhouse Gas’ in much the same ratio as traditional fossil fuels.
The reason biodiesel (and other alternatives) is seen as a clean option whilst in fact emitting similar pollutants, is explained by the term carbon neutral. A possible misnomer, as it’s easily confused with carbon-free, it means the carbon a fuel releases roughly equals the carbon it consumed out of the air as a growing crop. By this definition, fossil fuels are also carbon-neutral, but as their carbon consumption occurred millions of years ago it is not seen to count.
Alternatives such as Biodiesel and ethanol are currently available through a network of American service stations, but uptake is low because ordinary gasoline remains the cheapest option by a considerable margin. The infrastructure for gathering and distributing oil products is well in place, whereas biodiesel requires massive land cultivation and raw material processing at high cost. When asked why neither professor rated non-polluting hydrogen as a viable future fuel, it again came down to cost. Both financial and environmental.
Mercedes, BMW and Mazda currently have H vehicles on the road, and Iceland hosts the world’s first H refuelling station with plans for total conversion by 2050. The method used is the H fuel cell, wherein H and O are continuously added to the cell, producing a reaction of electricity, water and heat. The vehicle is then powered by the electricity
The costs involved in hydrogen production include massive electricity generation required for electrolysis, the storage and transportation of the volatile gas, and manufacturing a fleet of hydrogen-compatible vehicles. Currently, a hydrogen car costs over one hundred times its petrol equivalent, and hydrogen fuel five times current petrol prices. Given these restrictions even the most favourable forecasters put a hydrogen economy some forty to fifty years away from making any impact. This could be decades more than our remaining tracts of forest have, and puts hydrogen in the same niche camp as Climate Change Minister David Parker’s pet, the electric car.
As long as cost dominates over environmental concerns, gasoline will remain the primary fuel of our planet. One of the most appealing features of Ryan’s hydrogen burning water-fuel is that unlike existing alternatives it will undercut petrol in price by a considerable margin. But fuel production is only a third of the battle. Distribution and vehicle compatibility are higher mountains to climb. The current infrastructure of fuelling stations owned by the petroleum industry is an unlikely distribution option, and opening a few independent fuel depots won’t satisfy motorist’s needs for flexibility.
It is here that Biosfuel’s appeal takes a considerable leap. Ryan has equipped his vehicles with onboard conversion units about the size of a small television set. Here, the hydrogen enriching process occurs continuously, feeding into the engine on demand. The only additive required is water. I observed two vehicles running on this, and a hybrid (hydrogen and LPG) fuel source. While further developments are ongoing to perfect continuous road operation, I asked about the third major cost, building water-fuel compatible engines or converting existing ones.
A standard combustion engine will run off the water fuel, a major point of difference to the hydrogen fuel cell which powers an electric vehicle. Depending on the type, modifications to the carburettor may be necessary, and fuel injection is so far incompatible. This level of engine conversion is a far cry from the current hydrogen vehicles which price out at around $500,000 each. With minimal production, distribution and mechanical costs, Ryan believes that with support, a far cheaper version of the hydrogen economy could begin rolling out over the next decade.
An obvious candidate for partnership in such a sizeable venture is the government, whose recently announced Climate Change package includes the speeding up of alternative fuel development. Ryan approached organisations within the portfolios of Research and Technology, Economic Development and the Environment, governed by Maharey, Mallard, Benson-Pope and Parker, outlining Biosfuel’s Greenhouse-reducing strategies. His emails and phone calls were responded to with misdirected suggestions he apply for research and development grants the company didn’t require, and that to interest the government further, he must part with his Intellectual Property.
The unrealistic demands and general disinterest from government, coupled with academia’s scepticism caused Ryan to overcome his innate patriotism and begin searching offshore. His advice to anyone in his position is to waste little time knocking on Establishment doors, and to ‘go random’ instead. The random approach involves casting the net wide, going global via the Internet and maximising contacts with overseas interests. Suddenly, who is interested becomes a great deal more intriguing than who is not. Since releasing water-fuel information over the Internet, Ryan has installed sophisticated tracking software to see who’s hitting the company website. The list makes for a startling read. A Who’s Who of major American corporations, Universities, Research Institutes including NASA and curiously, Military Intelligence.
The list runs to over a hundred names, among them the world’s petrochemical giants. Several keep regular tabs on Biosfuel's progress, visiting the site monthly. Something has grabbed their attention. I ask Ryan how he thinks they came to know about a small fish way down in New Zealand? He responds that it is their business to know who is doing what in the field of energy technology. The technology Ryan claims to have puts him in a very small global group in which largely everyone knows everyone else.
No one in this group has any doubt that the future of energy looks vastly different to today’s model. But the process of inching forward is a game of chess between the world’s biggest industries (and embedded governments) who do not want to lose ground, and the new players. This tussle between old and new is archaic, but the stakes have been raised from mere financial interests, to the ability of our planet to survive the intent of the current regime to stay in power.
The random approach also includes courting media attention by entering rallies, competitions and motor-shows both here and overseas. The Energywise Rally runs from Auckland to Wellington every second year, first prize going to the most fuel-efficient vehicle. Winning this, and Ryan had little doubt he could, would ensure a ripple of media interest. But Ryan was denied entry. In an effort to standardise competitors the rally only accepts entrants from motor vehicle companies running marketable lines of hybrid vehicles, such as Honda and Ford. Unsurprisingly, the winner of the last two races has been Ralph Simms in a VW Golf running on his own brand of biodiesel.
In contrast, organisers of the motor-show Big Boys Toys were much more open to having the boys from Biosfuel present at their annual orgy of everything metallic and un-PC. BP is a major sponsor of the show and due to an earlier encounter with their research consultant, Ryan believed his entry of a Dodge-Ram having a custom built fuel saver, the original water powered bike now on LPG and the electric bike would be denied entry. Months earlier an oil company representative inspected the water-fuel, in regards to hydrogen power generation, acknowledging Ryan was getting higher than expected energy readings, but without being able to further conduct testing on equipment that is at present cost prohibitive to Ryan, the oil company declined to assist further. In spite of this, Biosfuel was granted a stall that generated huge interest over the weekend, as even the highly sceptical were intrigued by the technology on show however there was no proof of the water fuel on show.
Whilst the public were openly enthusiastic, by the end of the weekend it was becoming clear to Ryan that his crown jewels; the water fuel, was too difficult a barrow to push in a world so long dominated by fossil fuel energy. His failure to get recognition or support from within the industry convinced him to shift the company’s emphasis onto other technology he hoped would meet with less resistance.
Foremost amongst these is the Eco Tube, a fuel saving device fitted to the car radiator hose that reduces petrol consumption by 10 to 20%. Currently in use on Super Shuttles (one at this stage with another being fitted) and monitored over several months, Ryan says the device consistently achieves savings averaging 10% with an increase in passenger loadings of 18%. In an added bonus it reduces harmful carbon emissions by 50% or more, the very thing Dr. Raine’s team of engineers are looking for and, at $400 a tube, is a much friendlier option than banning old cars from our roads. Ryan claims another fuel saver is getting reductions of closer to 40%, but will stay under wraps until negotiations with a private company are pursued.
Further upstaging the work of our alternative fuel experts, Ryan had Thames’ Graham Coe install a plant that filters and blends industrial waste oil together with discarded chip shop vegetable oil, creating a ready-to-use biodiesel. Coe is a veteran of recycled oils, having produced and distributed a diesel made from old transformer oil for a number of years. As government legislation protects oil industries by preventing the use of any non-sanctioned fuels, Coe is forced to sell his diesel as heating oil, leaving it up to the purchaser whether they use it in their heater or car.
Both Coe and Ryan think removing such limitations on the use of alternatives fuels would do more to weaken our fossil fuel dependence, than plans such as increasing taxation or introducing electric cars at the rate of a few dozen a year. Creating a biodiesel took Ryan a matter of weeks, costing out at around 30 cents a litre, causing him to question the necessity of growing vast oilseed crops when waste oils are abundant, with manufacturers often paying to have them removed.
Alongside fuel-savers and the biodiesel plant stands an odd looking contraption that Ryan seems especially pleased about. It’s a six-pack of milk-carton sized plastic cells, interconnected by wires and tubes that culminate in a brightly shining lightbulb. Each cell comprises two metals submerged in urine, giving rise to the name ‘Biological Battery’. He’s excited about it because, given the energy in = energy out requirements of thermodynamics, it’s not supposed to work. Normally batteries run off stored power and need recharging, or on catalytic reactions that expire. Once set up, the biological battery needs no further input other than urine top-ups, while providing continuous power, in the case of the six-cell at a rate of 12 volts, 1.5 amps.
The battery has attracted the attention of American evolution biologist Dr.Elisabet Sahtouris whom, apart from lecturing in sustainable business practices, is a U.N. consultant for the rights and development of indigenous people. She asked if there was anything Biosfuel could contribute free of charge, to assist developing nations. The Biological Battery was Ryan’s response. She sees the battery as a way to generate electricity in the remote rural settlements of developing nations, often denied power by usurious rates charged by foreign-owned companies. A member of Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’ fraternity, her endorsement is starting to open doors for Biosfuel within the increasingly powerful ecological lobby groups.
Also interested in the battery is the Australian meat industry, investigating its potential for utilising animal stomach-content waste in place of the urine, providing an alternative to dumping now prohibited by new environmental-impact laws. The union of waste management with energy production is a dream solution for high-waste industries like abattoirs. Ryan’s random approach is winning connections from the pragmatic business sphere where results count more than science. The only relevant questions here are; does it work and will it save money?
In an unexpected honour, Ryan was recently invited to join a Swiss association formed in 1980 to promote and develop ecological vehicles and renewable energy. Members are entitled to have their research peer reviewed by an impressive line-up of research scientists. Professor Ahmed Masmoudi, chairman of the International Conference and Exhibition on Ecological Vehicles and Renewable Energies was impressed enough by Ryan’s submission to invite him to speak at this year’s conference in Monaco. As many leaders within the energy industry will be present Ryan is confident of making useful connections and is prepared to move his operation anywhere in the world if necessary.
But the fish Ryan is most keen to land is reminiscent of Burt Munro’s Fastest Indian, and explains the shiny red Corvette languishing under tarpaulin in a corner of the lab. It’s an American race called the Auto X Prize, funded by big names like Google with an unbelievable first prize of US$25 million for the car that travel’s furthest, fastest on the least-polluting fuel. The goal is 250 Mpg on Gasoline .Knowing most competitors will enter lightweight, aerodynamic contraptions he welcomes the spectacle of lining up with a Corvette ready to run at full speed.
He’s been granted preliminary entry by a senior official of the 2007/2008 race, however is awaiting the release of the rules and official entry to be open. A coup considering the number of times his attempts to enter NZ and international competitions have been declined due to frustrating technicalities within entry regulations, and organisers unwilling to widen the criteria to include independents. Ryan believes the media attention earned by winning or participating in major competitions will effectively force the hand of industrialists by bringing to public attention the existence of real alternatives to our global fossil-fuel headache.
He hopes public awareness will be the pressure that breaks through the stopbanks keeping Biosfuel out of contention in the world’s biggest commercial market. His is far from the first company to take the oil giants on and even those within the industry, including the CEO of Toyota USA, admit the difficulty lies not in the creation of alternatives, but in gaining a slice of the market so well cornered by corporations. Ryan’s view is philosophical, he’s aware what Biosfuel is up against and is in it for the long haul, claiming he’s “too stubborn to give up”. He believes success lies in understanding how others before him have tried and failed, and by doing things differently.
SIDEBAR: THE WATER-POWERED CAR CONSPIRACY
The idea of a water-powered vehicle isn’t new, and in fact was patented by American inventor Stanley Meyer in 1989. Meyer claimed he could extract gas from water in a kind of catalytic conversion process using stainless steel plates immersed in water and through which electric current was passed. In physics, the process is known as electrolysis, and no one disputes that gases can be released. What they do dispute is how much energy you have to use to achieve that.
Meyer claimed his invention could do it with much less power than conventional units, thereby turning water into wine, metaphorically speaking.
The resulting water vapour exhaust could then be condensed back into liquid water for the fuel tank, giving you a much greater miles-to-the-gallon ratio than petrol.
Despite some showings for the media, however, Meyer’s attempts to mass market his device failed when his business partners took him to court in 1996, and his technology was judged “fraudulent”, rightly or wrongly.
Meyer died two years later of a cerebral aneurysm, although conspiracy theorists believe he was assassinated.
Nearly twenty years since Meyer’s dubious science made waves, researchers at institutes dotted around the world are close to making water technology mainstream. New Scientist magazine recently reported on a collaborative effort between Minnesota University and Israel’s Weizmann Institute, wherein combustion engines were running off hydrogen made available by reacting water with the element boron.
Similar to Ryan’s technique, the water has to be supplied as vapour heated to several hundred degrees. The team calculate a car would carry 18kg of boron and 45 litres of water to produce 5kg of hydrogen, having the same energy potential as 40 litres of conventional fuel. A prototype engine compatible with the new fuel is currently being developed, with a view to mass production.