COLUMBIA — To Joe Wulff of Columbia, acetylene is money.
In the time and money his family has invested in research and development for the fuel — eight years and $3 million — to the capital the company could reap with further research and success on a broader level, the Wulffs and the rest of the folks at AFuels believe in acetylene, a gas produced by the reaction of water and calcium carbide.
The company has acquired four patents from the U.S. government to protect its technology and is awaiting word on a petition sent to the U.S. Department of Energy to make acetylene a recognized alternative fuel.
Everyone at AFuels is on a mission to get the word out about acetylene and make sure no doubters remain.
“This technology is ready for the marketplace,” said Wulff, director of research and development. “We don’t want to see it squelched. It’s already been squelched for 100 years.”
AFuels is a subsidiary under Go-Tec, Inc., led by former Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson of Columbia as its CEO. Wulff, who used to own a plumbing and fire sprinkler company, said he first thought of using acetylene in vehicles in the early 1990s.
“I noticed it had no odor to it, so it had to burn relatively clean,” Wulff said. “I got to thinking, ‘Why couldn’t — since the fuel burns the same as natural gas, propane — why wouldn’t it push a piston down in an engine?’”
From there, Wulff approached his dad and three brothers, who’ve been successful enough in the construction industry to fund all of the research and development. “They hired the right people to get it all together and make it work,” Joe Wulff said.
Tom Marrero, a chemical engineering professor at MU, calls acetylene an old, new fuel since it’s been around since the mid-1800s. “Today, with the prices being so high in fuels, it’s time to bring back some of those older technologies,” said David Seidel, vice president of engineering at AFuels.
About 50 years ago, Wulff said, experimenters tried to do what AFuels is doing: use acetylene in a motor vehicle. Scientists, however, were unsuccessful. AFuels has successfully retrofitted various engines, including a forklift, a 2000 Saturn, a 275-horsepower engine similar to one used in a Chevrolet Trailblazer and a floor polisher that all run on acetylene or a combination of ethanol and acetylene.
The process of creating acetylene starts with carbon from biomass and limestone heated together to create calcium carbide. The calcium carbide must be stored at room temperature with an inert gas in a tightly sealed container so no moisture leaks inside. It can be stored as tiny, black pebbles in glass jars like the ones used for salsa. For bigger uses, calcium carbide can be stored as black, regular-sized rocks and has an ashy texture. Water dripping on calcium carbide creates acetylene.
The process has its share of scientists backing it, too. Some of their pictures, along with their declaration letters, hang on the walls of AFuels’ meeting room on the second level of 1101 Lakeview Drive. Marrero; Virgil Flanigan, director of the Center for Environmental Science and Technology at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla; Brian Young, managing director of Envirosafe International in Australia; and Rosario Lanzafame, a professor of internal combustion engines at the University of Catania, Italy, have all provided unpaid written testimonies supporting acetylene technology in internal combustion engines.
Marrero said he initially doubted the technology but then saw the company’s test vehicles running on acetylene at its warehouse in north Columbia.
“You don’t smell anything. You don’t see anything,” Marrero said. “Seeing is believing.”
While at the warehouse last week, Wulff started up the a forklift, pointing out the dual fuel lines of ethanol and acetylene. The forklift runs on 95 percent acetylene and about five percent ethanol, Wulff said.
Wulff is adamant about people understanding and believing in acetylene as an alternative fuel. To squash all doubts, he makes sure you turn the valve that controls the acetylene, “So you know it’s running on acetylene,” he said. Then he operates the floor polisher fueled by acetylene only. “What do you smell? You smell anything?”
Later on, his brother Phil, the company’s clean fuel programmer, also joins in. “I don’t smell anything,” he said.
After showing off a couple of the test engines, Joe Wulff walks over to the 2000 Saturn, pops open the hood and offers a suggestion: “Stick your nose in there and tell me what you smell.”
AFuels officials beam over the lack of smell and smoke. Armed with test results, the folks at AFuels are excited about acetylene’s future as an alternative fuel.
When compared to gasoline, acetylene pollutes 10 times less than the 2008 required standard for fuel, Seidel said. Cars running on acetylene, Wulff said, would only need an oil change every 30,000 miles because of how clean the fuel burns.
In experiments, the Trailblazer engine fueled by ethanol and acetylene has been in the 40th percentile in terms of efficiency, whereas a regular car hovers around 17 percent. Acetylene cars are more efficient because the engine doesn’t get as hot as a gas engine. This happens, Seidel said, because the ethanol first cools the engine’s chambers prior to the acetylene arriving, resulting in almost a 300-degree temperature difference at the exit of the engine.
Also, the 2000 Saturn gets about 60 miles per gallon of acetylene, Wulff said.
Acetylene is also just one fuel, not a composite of substances like gasoline in cars today. “It has the purities,” Seidel said. “The engine lasts longer.”
Throughout the eight years of research and development, Wulff said, the hardest part has been reaching that next step: finding an investor with the capital to take the fuel to the marketplace.
Wulff mostly blames the oil companies. Seidel points to the fact early automotive engines were designed for ethanol, but no one could compete with the cheap prices for gasoline. Wulff reads from 1998 International Center for Technology Assessment report that says the price of a gallon of gas, without support from the government, would have been around $15.
“The mammoth corporations are positioning themselves globally, and not so much to take over, but they do it indirectly to take over the natural resources,” Wulff said. “They’re actually controlling the populations as a whole.”
Still, they think acetylene stands a good chance overall and a better chance than the future of hydrogen cars.
Acetylene’s “cheaper to produce than hydrogen, more abundant because we live in a carbon society, not a hydrogen society,” Wulff said.
The components for acetylene are widespread, Marrero said, as calcium carbide is shipped in massive quantities around the world.
“If we get the investors, we’re going to be producing our own fuel. We’re going to be a single-source supplier,” he said. “We’re not only going to sell them the engines retrofitted, we’re going to sell them the fuel, too.”
Near the end of the hour-or-so long tour of the warehouse, Wulff walked outside where the Trailblazer engine’s exhaust pipes release the fuel. He pointed to the air rising from the pipes.
“Do you see any smoke coming out of it?” He then answers his own question.