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.
"When I started researching eco-friendly materials, it led me to bamboo and hemp, and that led to learning about fair trade and environmentally conscious manufacturing," the young Fort Lauderdale designer says.
This keep-it-real sensibility led her to name her ready-to-wear line, "Ergostalio: Organic."
There's a booming international market for clothing with eco-snob appeal, but it's yet to wash ashore in the Sunshine State.
"Florida is behind in being environmentally conscious," says Jachode. "There are a couple of boutiques which specialize in [eco-friendly attire], but they have to sell through the internet to international customers."
After Jachode graduates from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale next month, she'll prepare a debut collection for the Scarlet Affair in Fort Lauderdale, followed by a ribbon-cutting for her own internet boutique. Then it'll just be a matter of waiting. As the polar icecaps melt and the Atlantic Ocean begins swallowing the mainland, sales are bound to improve.
The 11-Year Itch
That joint you rolled 11 years ago might come back to bite you in the ass, especially if you're not a U.S. citizen.
Humberto Moreno, a 31-year-old resident alien born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, who has called this country home since he was 8, was on his way home from a honeymoon in Mexico when he got snagged in an airport line. This was in 2005, at the height of the post-9/11 paranoia. Moreno found himself in a room with a bunch of other Latinos, answering questions about an incident that had occurred when he was 20.
Yes, he had been arrested once, he candidly told an immigration officer. In the parking lot of a Pompano Beach 7-Eleven. He was a wild kid back then, sitting in his car, rolling a joint, when a city cop walked up and slapped him with a possession charge.
He pleaded no contest before Circuit Court Judge Mary Robinson and got a slap on the wrist and deferred adjudication. He saw the fine print that said, if you're in the U.S. illegally, a no-contest plea could get you deported. Moreno breathed a sigh of relief. He's a resident alien, in the country on the up-and-up.
Then he went on that honeymoon and learned that our immigration laws take a different slant on even minor drug possession.
"Over something so small, my life got completely turned over," Moreno says. "I'm obviously over the drug and party scene."
Nowadays, Moreno works for a wholesaler supplying Wal-Marts up and down Florida's Atlantic coast. He has a second job at a restaurant in Port St. Lucie, and he owns a home in that city. And, he insists, he keeps to the straight and narrow.
According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, though, when any law relating to a controlled substance is broken, that person is guilty of moral turpitude and subject to deportation.
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As far as the deportation issue is concerned, if the amount is less than 30 grams and for personal use, there's an exception. So the pinch of marijuana he was busted with wasn't an issue. But what about the rolling paper? Unfortunately, there is no exception for paraphernalia, Moreno learned. The home-owning restaurant and delivery man now faced deportation for owning Zig-Zags.
Fortunately for Moreno, he could afford to hire good lawyers. His immigration lawyer, Karyn Todd, got Hollywood criminal attorney Richard Salzman to reopen the drug case, eventually getting the charge dismissed for lack of evidence. Todd couldn't be reached for comment, but immigration attorney and former U.S. immigration judge Jeffrey Brauwerman says erasing the earlier charges pulls the rug out from under deportation-minded immigration officials.
Moreno hopes to return to a distinctly middle class American life soon, minus some legal fees, plus a few gray hairs.
In the end it was all about the papers, not those pertaining to his status in this country but rolling papers.