Howard County highway workers come up with gas-saving device

Critics say such devices don't really work

  • Howard County highway workers Nelson Frazier, left, Chuck Vollmerhausen and Carl Fugate used designs from the Internet to build hydrogen fuel cells, foreground. County Executive Ken Ulman is letting them try the device on a couple county vehicles.
Howard County highway workers Nelson Frazier, left, Chuck… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
November 15, 2009|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Extracting hydrogen and oxygen from water and burning the gas in your vehicle engine to boost gas mileage and cut emissions? Crazy, many engineers and other experts say.

But four Howard County highway workers say they've made devices to do just that and successfully used them on their own vehicles, and now they have the OK to test them on a couple of county vehicles.

"If that's what it takes to get a net savings, why not?" County Executive Ken Ulman reasoned after visiting the county's Cooksville vehicle maintenance shop to see the devices and talk to the men who built them. Ulman, facing the worst budget crunch in decades, said he loves the men's spirit and creativity and he's told county public works supervisors to make the device test happen.

Three of the four, Carl Fugate, Nelson Frazier and Chuck Vollmerhausen, say the model they've developed from Internet designs works on their personal trucks, and costs less than $100 in materials to build. The men installed them personally.

Ulman is going to let them try their version of the device, called an HHO generator, on a couple of county vehicles.

"Carl told me he put over 100,000 miles on it on his own truck and saved 20 percent on fuel with clearer exhaust," Ulman said.

If it cuts fuel use and burns cleaner, Ulman said he's for it. "If it does, I'll put it on every vehicle we can," he said.

That is a big "if," according to experts on the subject.

"In general, these things are bogus," Jaal Ghandhi, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin Energy Research Center told The Baltimore Sun.Mechanical engineering professor Christopher M. White of the University of New Hampshire also believes their results are not possible.

"In the laws of thermodynamics, you always get out less energy than you put in," he said. The device could reduce emissions, but it won't boost gas mileage, he said, because the energy required to produce the electricity negates the savings.

The Internet has many denunciations of the idea, and the device has been scorned by sources as diverse as a 2008 Popular Mechanics article and Answers.com.

The basic idea is simple. The generator uses electricity from the vehicle's alternator to heat distilled water supplied from a canister through flexible tubing to a series of precisely spaced stainless steel plates.

The plates are separated by gaskets and the process is aided by electrolytes. The water breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen, which then bubbles up through another tube, back to the top of the canister and out through a third tube connected to the engine's air intake. The two gases help the truck's fuel burn more completely, wasting less and boosting mileage.

The workers, two of whom are mechanics, started experimenting with the idea nearly two years ago, as fuel prices began climbing toward a peak of $4 a gallon, but they encountered lots of problems. They started out on a tabletop, using scrap metal to make the plates, and heating water from a jug until gas bubbles were produced. They found the gas was indeed flammable, testing it with a lighter.

Using lunch breaks and personal time at home, they read more on the Internet, evolving their design through five versions until adopting a model they installed on a truck.Fugate, 40, of West Friendship, a 19-year county employee, owns and drives his own tractor trailer at night, delivering gasoline to area stations. His 1992 Freightliner diesel already had logged 1 million miles, he said, and was in line for a major overhaul anyway. Now, using the device he and the two county mechanics developed through trial and error, "It's not looking like it will need one," he said.

Vollmerhausen, 56, of Savage, a 15-year county mechanic, put a small version of the generator on his riding lawn mower at home, and all three have had them on their personal pickup trucks for more than a year. Frazier, 46, a 28-year employee from Woodbine, said there's another advantage to the device. "You feel a big power difference, too," he said.

Fugate said his big rig produces much less black smoke, too.

Since the system doesn't store hydrogen, there's no danger of an explosion, they said.

Vollmerhausen said he's got one of the devices on a gasoline engine truck that passed Maryland emissions test with flying colors and with no questions asked about the extra hardware. A fourth member of the team, supervisor Ricky Fleming, was off hunting bear in Western Maryland during the county executive's recent visit.

Despite the experts who scoff at the concept, Fugate said he and his colleagues believe what they see and experience.

"We were naysayers in the beginning also," Fugate said, adding that he gets 8.1 mpg on his big rig, compared to 5.8 mpg before.

"All we're trying to do is save the county money on fuel," Fugate said. With county workers getting no pay raise this year, along with four furlough days without pay, any extra savings the crew can generate, he said, "does affect our salaries."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.