Company sees bright future in its acetylene investment

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 | 8:45 p.m. CST; updated 10:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Joe Wulff, director of research and development for AFuels, LLC, and his brother Phil Wulff, who works as a clean fuel programmer, check a gauge on a generator powered by acetylene at a garage in northern Columbia on Friday. The Wulff brothers have been researching the use of acetylene, which is created by combining water and calcium carbide, as a cleaner and more efficient source of fuel.

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.


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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.


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Eduardo Ott March 17, 2008 | 12:40 p.m.

I would like to add some piece of information: the acetylene was used by the time of WW2 in London's cabs. So, it's really not new at all, and the technology should only be improved to today's engeneering.

Best Regards

Eduardo Ott (from Brazil)

(Report Comment)
david peascott March 21, 2011 | 9:58 a.m.

I am one day going to do this myself, motorize a push bike for my experiment.Have an original motor design and gas delivery system in mind to which I wonder if Joe Wulff would be interested.

(Report Comment)
Forrest Wales September 26, 2011 | 10:21 a.m.

I think acetylene for fuel is a good idea. I was at a flea market Saturday and later that day the thought popped into my head to use acetylene for the v-8 jeep I have. The following day I bought a bottle at another flea market and tried feeding it into the fuel rail. I removed the fuel pump relay and started the jeep. it ran fine until all the gas was used up in the fuel rail then ran with no acceleration, then stalled. I wasn't sure what I did wrong. The acetylene tank had a fixed regulator so assumed needing more pressure. When you say you retrofit the cars, what does that mean or would you tell me how to make work on the v-8 jeep? My original thought was an acetylene bottle holds a lot more burnable gas than a gasoline tank, is this correct? How long will a medium sized bottle deliver acetylene to run car. The idea is interesting. I read about another guy running a car on acetylene and has a mini acetylene production unit in trunk.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 26, 2011 | 11:01 a.m.

Acetylene bottles for welding keep the acetylene dissolved in acetone. They have to be kept upright or the acetone will flow out with the acetylene.

Pure acetylene under pressure is explosive. Do not set regulator pressures higher than 15 psi.

When burned, acetylene liberates 1470 Btu/cubic foot, and a standard "B" cylinder can deliver 40 cubic feet of acetylene. That is about 59,000 Btu, or a bit less than the energy in 1/2 gallon of gasoline.

Overall, the energy involved in making calcium carbide easily cancels out any increase in efficiency that acetylene might give. There are many good reasons that we don't use it as motor fuel.


(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 26, 2011 | 11:24 a.m.

If it is easy to retrofit an engine then the answer is to simply start with a local market and work forward from there. The main hitch is that it might take a more energy to heat the mixture than the energy that would be stored in the acetylene. However, if someone is using biomass, one component of the input is something that might otherwise be wasted. Also, if the engine can operate with more thermal efficiency and cleaner this would negate much of any extra energy that would be needed to produce the fuel.
There are piles of lime that is tainted with a bit of lead around Park Hills that nobody knows what to do with. Since it has lead it is mainly considered unusable for agricultural lime and I understand that it has the wrong consistency to be used for making cement. Possibly the process of converting it and then using it for a reaction could leave a residue where more lead could be recovered, eliminating a zillion dollar toxic waste problem while gaining something from nothing. There should be no problem sourcing biomass from the area around Park Hills as it is largely agricultural and because there are many saw mills in the area constantly needing to dispose of their waste.
That aside, the lime could easily be scratched from the ground there as most of it crumbles in your hands. Mostly it is the wrong consistency to be used for chalk, construction limestone, fertilizer or cement. Where it is the right consistency, the mines are extensive.
To expand a local market for the product, I would think that offering to retrofit a fleet of buses or taxicabs would give a company a solid baseline.
I never thought about acetylene. I always had assumed that it was something that was refined from natural gas.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 26, 2011 | 11:31 a.m.

Say Mark, what is the volume of a B cylinder? If the engine is over twice as efficient then it that half gallon's worth would act like a gallon's worth. If it could be made from that which has little or no value at the moment it may be possible to use despite the obvious drawbacks. But what is the volume of a B cylinder?

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Mark Foecking September 26, 2011 | 12:32 p.m.

A "B" cylinder can deliver 40 cubic feet of acetylene. Its actual volume is about 0.6 cu. ft.

The lead would wind up in the calcium carbide, making the residue hazardous after the acetylene was generated. While I agree that it would be good to use these lime deposits in a useful manner, but I'm not sure if spreading it arould in a bunch of acetylene generators would be approved of.

Calcium carbide is an energy carrier, not a source, just like electricity or hydrogen. It takes some portion of the electricity used to make it and gives a certain quantity of energy less as acetylene. It would be far more efficient (and safer) to use the electricity to charge a battery in an electric car, rather than taking it through a lot of transitions.


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Ellis Smith September 26, 2011 | 12:33 p.m.

OR do what natural gas suppliers have been doing for at least 50 years: running their company sedans, trucks and SUVs on pressurized natural gas, which is also a "clean" solution.

So why don't we see that in general use? Because the natural gas purveyors have the equipment to remove gas from their pipelines and bottle and pressurize it. They have made adjustments to their engines (which I understand are minor) and have sacrificed space* in their vehicles to accommodate the pressurized tanks. In other words, they've made the needed modifications to vehicles and have their own captive "filling stations."

I don't know whether this usage is subject to federal or state motor fuel taxes, but I'm going to guess that it is not. If it ever caught on for general public use I think we could suppose that it WOULD be taxed. :)

*- Putting those cylinders in the trunk of even a large sedan DOES reduce space available for other things.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 26, 2011 | 1:06 p.m.

I knew someone who had a compressed gas car and it seemed to run well. I remember driving it but I had never driven it when it ran on gasoline, so I have no basis for comparison. If I had to guess I would say it probably was much better starting up and at part throttle and not as powerful at full throttle. Despite the combustion being that much cleaner the engine "wore out" faster. I understand that engines run hotter on compressed gas and the valves get warped in a relatively short time. I suppose the stainless valves that are commonly available these days might be a way around that problem.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 26, 2011 | 2:08 p.m.

I suppose, right now, that the highest use of any of that would be on things like indoor forklifts.

And Mark, I don't believe that the heat needs to come from electricity. I can actually recall at least one instance where there is a sawmill located within a mile of a quarry. I know that sawmills always have waste wood and sawdust. Quarries usually have some rock that is more dust than anything because they mechanically sort rock by size. I would guess that the powdery rock is the best for the task and that it could be had for almost nothing. At worst, there isn't much transport cost. The waste wood could heat a mix of that leftover limestone and the sawdust from mill that is a pure waste product. You are probably right about the extra steps, but only to a point.
For instance, the biomass initiative that is intended to power a local plant will cause people to divert a large amount of land for that one use. It would make the best sense if wastes from other uses could be utilized and if the distances of transport were minimal. The idea of capturing the gas from the garbage dump is the best because the gas was going to form anyway and pollute the atmosphere and there is no transport cost as the garbage is pure waste.
But a sawmill can be several hundred miles from an endpoint. So if someone could obtain lime or limestone from a local source and use the heat from burning some of the waste product to heat the remainder of the waste product, converting it into something valuable, then there is money in it. I can recall when the chip mills opened that they were paying 17 dollars a ton for what they bought and it had to meet some minimum length and diameter specifications for that. It had to be debarked and transported to that mill. From what I understand it was quite common for people to drive wood a hundred miles to get that small price. Sawmills at that time were selling the bark by the bucket, with a bucket being a few tons, for less than ten bucks. So when you see a fifty foot pile of sawdust permanently smoldering somewhere, be fairly confident that nobody has figured out what to do with it as nothing makes any economic sense. Since the sawdust will either oxidize or spontaneously combust on it's own anyway, there wouldn't really be anything wasted. The only question is if a particular mill would be able to provide enough waste to make such an endeavor worthwhile. I would think that it would be if they could just get a so many dollars per ton of calcium carbonate.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 26, 2011 | 5:23 p.m.

Paul Allaire wrote:

"And Mark, I don't believe that the heat needs to come from electricity."

Actually it does. The calcium carbide reaction requires extreme temperatures (2000 deg C - about 3600 deg F), which are not achievable with any common fuel, especially biomass.


(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 26, 2011 | 5:43 p.m.

Alright then. I can at this point throw out the extreme mileage claims because, even if they were true, they would be irrelevant. I suppose the stuff would still be desirable for running heavy mobile equipment indoors. Thanks for the information.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 27, 2011 | 6:46 a.m.

From a publication by ASM International:

Acetylene is a hydrocarbon gas ... When under pressure acetylene is unstable, and a slight shock can cause it to explode, even in the absence of oxygen or air. Safety rules for use of acetylene ... are extremely important.

Acetylene should not be used at pressures greater than 103 kPa (15 psi). [DK also specified 15 psi.]

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 27, 2011 | 8:56 a.m.

The final nail in the coffin. So there are many reasons why this has not been done.

“Do you see any smoke coming out of it?”

I do now.

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