Piston inventor is driven Persistence: Andrew Pouring left a Naval Academy teaching job to form Sonex Research. The breakthrough that has eluded him may be near, thanks to a new piston he is developing.

April 01, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

You have to admire Andrew Pouring's persistence.

He has devoted the past 16 years of his life to the development of technology that seems almost too good to be true -- a new piston that will not only boost an engine's fuel economy and horsepower, but eliminate knock and cut noxious emissions.

Dr. Pouring, a former professor of aeronautical engineering at the Naval Academy, is vice chairman and chief executive of Annapolis-based Sonex Research Inc., a tiny automotive research company housed in a modest concrete block building with peeling yellow paint and plastic stretched over the windows to keep out the cold.

For years, the company seemed to be always on the verge of a major technology breakthrough that would establish its mark in automotive history, but it never got over the hump.

Once again, opportunity beckons.

Texaco Group Inc., one of the world's biggest oil refining companies -- announced last week that it will begin testing an engine with the Sonex piston in the next few months.

That alone is a breakthrough for Sonex.

"A lot of people send us their inventions and we turn 99.9 percent of them away," said Raymond Paggi, a senior researcher at Texaco's research center in Beacon, N.Y.

"For us to agree to test the Sonex piston says, 'We think they have something here,' " said Mr. Paggi.

"Their theory is based on good and sound principals according to our past research in this area," Mr. Paggi said. "We think they are on the right track."

Texaco is sending a test engine to Sonex's shop on Hudson Street. It will be fitted with Sonex pistons that have a cavity carved out of the top for controlled burning of fuel. The engine will then be returned to Texaco's research center, where the testing will be performed.

"We will either make believers or liars out of them [Sonex]," said Mr. Paggi.

Under terms of the agreement between the two companies, Texaco is to make the results of its testing program public.

Mr. Paggi said Texaco is interested in the Sonex piston because it has the potential of allowing diesel engines to meet the federal government's tough emission standards, which are scheduled to become law in 2004.

If that is the case, he said, it would enable Texaco to supply diesel fuel without moving to a more costly refining process.

Dr. Pouring is excited about the Texaco test. He says it will prove once and for all that he has been right all along.

"It will give us credibility," he said. "It will be the first time that a third party has tested the engine in their laboratory and proved that it works."

Dr. Pouring is counting on the test to prove his credibility within his own family.

He gave up a comfortable job with a comfortable salary as head of aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy to test the commercial waters in 1980 when he founded Sonex.

He has struggled over the years. So has the company. It has posted million-dollar losses on top of million-dollar losses.

Dr. Pouring's own finances suffered. At Sonex, he earned considerably less than at his teaching job. Like Sonex's five ZTC other employees, he fre- quently has been forced to defer big portions of his salary to keep the company going.

He still remembers the response from his teen-age daughter when he had to tell her they couldn't afford a new pair of shoes. "What do you mean, there is no money?" she asked.

A year or two later, the same daughter, one of four children, said to her father: "Why don't you go out and get a real job?"

He has wondered that himself on occasions.

Despite many setbacks and disappointments, Dr. Pouring still believes in what he is doing.

"It was like a light had been passed onto me and it was too important not to accept," he said of the challenge of bringing the Sonex piston to market. "I couldn't go to my death bed knowing I had an opportunity to make a significant contribution [to the automotive industry] and didn't do anything."

For the past 10 years, Dr. Pouring has been preaching that the big breakthrough was just down the road. In 1986, he was predicting that Sonex could be generating annual sales of $100 million within five years.

He and the company's shareholders are still waiting for that big payday.

In recent years, sales have been running around $100,000 and the losses continue to pile up. The company has never posted a profit.

Sonex's stock, which traded in the mid 20s 10 years ago, has been trading between 50 cents and $2 the past year.

Analysts have abandoned the company. It was a case of crying wolf once too often.

"Sonex was a hot story for a while, but it got old," said Luke T. Smith, an analyst with Chesapeake Research Inc. in Towson. "It looked like they were onto something, but they never came through."

Despite the adversity, Dr. Pouring is echoing some of the same statements he was making 10 years ago.

"We're in serious negotiations with two major European engine manufacturers" toward a licensing agreement to produce and use the Sonex piston in their truck motors, he said.

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