Eureka, Maybe

Adios, Unleaded

Tailpipe has seen enough sappy B movies to believe that the world's knottiest problems just might be solved by amateurs tinkering in their garages. Face it, between the Apple computer duo of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and the electronic equipment inventors Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, there was probably more innovation going on in Palo Alto, California, garages in the last century than in all the labs of those big technology factories turning out toasters and swimming pool vacuums.

Now here comes Thomas Cope, a 22-year-old landscaper from Fort Lauderdale, who says he's got the solution to global warming, fossil fuel shrinkage, and $4-a-gallon gas prices — all in a little contraption in his backyard.

Cope says he and his friend Dave Kaehele have built a motor that runs on water — a claim that challenges even Tailpipe's love for a miraculously good story.

Water, Thomas? You're joshing.

Dead serious, Cope insists. The liquid that covers three-quarters of the earth's surface — therein lies the secret solution to all our fuel problems.

"It's clean, it's cheap, and it's completely doable," Cope said. "If you put this into a car, you'd never have to go to the gas station again. Or you could drive up to the pumps and fill up on the free water. Most people have to see it to believe it."

Exactamundo. Tailpipe went to Cope's backyard lab in southwest Fort Lauderdale to see the contraption up close. Sure enough, between the lawn chairs and crumpled beer cans was a machine that seemed to be running a small scooter motor off regular drinking water.

Cope, who nurtures a stoner-on-his-day-off look — tattoos, baggy shorts, and puffed-out hair — takes a sip from the water supply just in case there are any doubts. Nailed to a makeshift work bench is an acrylic cylinder filled with water and baking soda. Into the water, Cope puts a stack of five steel plates, latched together and connected by wires to a 12-volt car battery. As the magnetized plates charge, the water begins to bubble. This, the 'Pipe learns later, is electrolysis — chemical decomposition prompted by an electric current. The electricity is, in effect, breaking water molecules down to their atomic components.

Hydrogen released from the bubbling water — a gas with enough explosive energy to blow things up — moves through a tube to a plastic bag sealed with duct tape.

"That's the holding chamber," explains Kaehele, an easygoing graphic designer who can't wait to hook the device up to a boat.

From the chamber, the gas moves into a PVC pipe filled with water — "the bubbler, to make sure backfires don't blow this whole thing up," Cope explains. Then another tube sends the gas straight to the four-horsepower combustion motor, which suddenly chugs to life.

It didn't run long before a backfire shut it off. But, hey, Tailpipe has to admit: It did run.

"This technology has been out there for a while," Cope said, "but [the oil industry] has done whatever it could to stop the progress and silence the people who know about it."

So Cope and Kaehele have solved the world's energy problems? And Cope and Kaehele will soon make an appearance on the Forbes 400 list?

Er, not so fast, says University of Southern California chemistry professor Stephen E. Bradforth, an expert on molecular dynamics and water chemistry.

"People have known about electrolysis producing hydrogen for 200 years," Bradforth says in a phone interview, after the 'Pipe has described Cope's contraption. "What they've done is kind of novel in terms of burning just the hydrogen, but the chemistry back-end of this is nothing new. It sounds like they've created a garage version of a chemistry class demonstration."

Sorry, this is not a solution to our energy crisis, Bradforth says. "Turning water into fuel is just not energy efficient," he says. "It uses more power than it creates. If there were an efficient way to run a motor using electrolysis, we would all already be driving water cars."

The B-movie version of the story suggests that skeptics like Bradforth are part of the Big Oil conspiracy theory. You want cars that run on water? Hah, we have vays of eliminating leetle backyard science punks like you.

This amuses Bradforth (of course!). "Let them have their fantasies," he says tolerantly.

Dressing for a Warm Climate

Kyra Jachode is no fool. She can see past South Florida's SUV-clogged freeways, past its landfills and pollution-degraded Everglades. Someday, she thinks, even the clothes horses who gallop between the Galleria and the Aventura Mall will be inspecting labels not for trendy names but for trendy — and eco-friendly — fabrics.

OK, so that future may be a long way off. Fortunately Jachode only just turned 21. She recently won a berth in the South Florida Student Designer Competition, becoming one of six invited to show original designs to the international audience that gathered for last Wednesday's opening night of Miami Fashion Week.

Jachode chose a babydoll dress and matching vest, both made of hemp, bamboo, and silk, with wooden buttons in back sewn with Egyptian cotton. None of those oil-based synthetic fabrics such as polyester. And no materials from Indonesian sweatshops.

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