Fuel scams: An Australian tradition

Gerard Ryle is the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who did most of the work of exposing the Firepower fiasco (it was linking to Ryle's SMH articles about Firepower that got me tangled up in the whole thing).

Ryle was on the Radio National mini-show Ockham's Razor the other day; Robyn Williams called his book "riveting". (Unfortunately for Gerard's bank balance, that's Robyn Williams the Australian science journalist and host of Ockham's Razor, not Robin Williams the comedian and movie star.)

Ryle's paraphrasing his book in the Ockham's Razor piece (available as a text transcript and a less-than-15-minute podcast), but he hardly talks about Firepower at all, and isn't just trying to get you to buy the book. Instead, he gives some highlights of the long and miserable history of fuel-saving gadgets here in Australia. Even in just this one country, there have been several stops on this particular railway to nowhere.

It's not all pills, magnets and crystals, either. There's also that hardy perennial, the Miracle Engine.

Miracle Engines share with perpetual motion machines - and ordinary everyday automotive technology, come to think of it - the handy quality of being difficult for laypeople to understand. Especially if you make 'em complicated enough. There are plenty of unusual engine designs that actually do work quite well, after all; those workable engines provide useful cover under which bogus Miracle Engines can sneak up on the consumer. The Miracle Engines often don't look any less plausible to the average Joe, or even to the experienced mechanic, than a Wankel rotary - but they often don't work at all, let alone actually have the potential to revolutionise the whole field of automotive blah blah blah.

As with perpetual motion machines, Miracle Engines have been devised that contain every conceivable combination of rotors, pistons, opposed pistons, free pistons, swing pistons, shape-changing combustion chambers, exhaust turbines, planetary gears and a whole Victorian engineering textbook worth of other mechanisms and linkages.

Miracle Engines have the great advantage that, if a misguided-engineer or plain-old-scam-artist goes to the trouble of making a not-quite-working model of one, nobody can easily test his claims and show them to be bollocks. Sellers of magic fuel pills have to make sure people never actually test their products, but Miracle Engine inventors can just keep sucking up "development" money from investors and quite plausibly string said investors along, explaining that there's still a niggling little problem with the panendermic semi-boloid stator slots, but that's all that still stands in the way of the 500-horsepower 200-mile-per-gallon automobile you've been promised, and it's nothing another hundred thousand dollars can't solve!

First in Ryle's short-list of Aussie fuel-saving ventures is the essentially useless Sarich orbital engine (I was going to edit in some links from one or both of those little Wikipedia articles to the radio-show transcript, but then I detected a certain similarity between the two already, which suggests that such a reference would be circular...). The Orbital company still exists, selling a fuel-injection system that seems to have been the only part of the Sarich engine that actually worked. (Ralph Sarich himself cashed out years ago, but the legend of his engineering genius and the automotive-industry conspiracy that kept the poor man down will never die. Note that the definition of "poor man" here includes "a personal worth of several hundred million dollars". Almost makes me wish I could invent an engine that doesn't work.)

And then there was Rick Mayne's "Split-Cycle Technology", another miracle engine that amounted to nothing. Mayne had the balls to enlist Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs to help promote his technology; this sort of grand cheeky gesture seems to be common in the automotive miracle business.

Splitcycle.com.au has been around for more than ten years now; it was promising great things in 1999, then passed to the ownership of someone unimpressed with Rick Mayne who promised a "Re-Emergence of SplitCycle Engine Technology" in 2005. But now the site is sadly reduced, to what appears to be an empty server.

(Is the Michael Papp who wrote that splitcycle.com.au editorial the same Michael Papp who went on to sell "Spark EV" electric vehicles that didn't, if you want to get all nitpicky and technical about it, exist? Apparently, as of June this year, the Spark EV story was due to "get very interesting in the next month or so", and the electric cars did too exist, and all the mean kids who made fun of Michael Papp and Spark EV would be so, so sorry. As of September '09, spark-ev.com is completely gone.)

A little bit further into Ryle's tale of woe we encounter "Save The World Air Inc", which offered a little fuel-saving nasty-emission-eliminating gizmo allegedly invented by Pro Hart, of all people.

Regular readers may remember Save The World Air from this post, in which I started out thinking that a new "electrorheology" fuel-saver idea actually didn't look like just another textbook scam, since it was plainly presented with all the information necessary for other researchers to attempt to replicate the alleged findings. But then I noticed that the gadget had been licensed to Save The World Air, which dropped it straight back into the "obvious scam" category, if you ask me. And lo, here we are a year later, and electrorheological combustion enhancement ain't changed the world yet.

Ryle couldn't do a piece like this without mentioning Aussie racing legend Peter Brock and his religious belief - maintained right up until his 2006 death in a racing accident - in the "Energy Polarizer". The Polarizer added crystals to magnets, to allegedly achieve the usual wonderful things. (The only measurable effect the Energy Polarizer ever actually had was on Brock's relationship with Holden.)

Perhaps, one day, all this nonsense will have faded away like patent medicines - but I doubt it'll happen soon. Even if we're all driving electric cars that're charged by too-cheap-to-meter solar or fusion power - or being driven around in autonomous electric cars - there'll still be carpetbaggers selling magnetic crystals that're meant to improve motor power.

With any luck, though, the sheer size of the stinking jet of bloody phlegm that sprayed all over Australia when the Firepower boil was finally lanced will at least slightly dampen enthusiasm for the next couple of fuel-pill scams.

In other Firepower-related news which I have shamelessly scraped from Gerard Ryle's blog, there's been some pleasing developments in the life of the delectable John Finnin, former Austrade official, former CEO of Firepower, et cetera.

One, the fact that this gentleman's full name is "John Cornelius Alphonsus Finnin" has become public knowledge.

And two, Finnin's been found guilty of 23 child-sex charges, and gone down for eight to twelve.

(This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Finnin brillantly decided to represent himself in court.)

I actually think eight years, followed by the usual Registered Sex Offender life-ruining, is a bit of a rough sentence for someone who's only been found guilty of having a consensual relationship with a 15-year-old rent boy. But Finnin played a big, and it seems to me obviously knowing, role in the shovelling of taxpayers' and naïve investors' money into his own, and Tim Johnston's, pockets.

So, you know, screw that guy.

(In case you were wondering, Tim Johnston himself continues to Skase it up overseas, deaf to the cries of creditors large and small.)

7 Responses to “Fuel scams: An Australian tradition”

  1. corinoco Says:

    Ah, this makes me think way, way waaaaaay back to Towards 2000; when Ralph Sarich was going to save the world, and put Australia on the map for sure! I think Our Most Famous Ex-pat Peter Foster probably did a fuel scam at some point, he's done just about every other kind. I liked the theme music for Towards 2000 though. I think I taped it from the telly.

    As for Finnin "A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a lawyer"

  2. TTFK Says:

    When it comes to split-cycle engines, they are actually in development by legitimate going concerns, of which is being designed right around the corner from where I work. Most interesting is the air-hybrid design they are working on that theoretically will recapture and reuse a fair portion of energy on each cycle.

    As for the chops of the inventor, Carlo Scuderi's resume is beyond reproach. This is a man who helped test NASA's space suit designs, helped design the Mark-48 Torpedo among other things.

    His biggest achivement, however (from his bio):

    In 1992, Scuderi developed a compressor technology to prevent the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere in response to a key United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate. His oil-less compressor was conceived and introduced within a period of six months and captured 70 percent of the refrigerant recovery market within one year. In 2005, Discovery Magazine credited this development as one of the reasons for the ongoing repair of the ozone layer. Nearly 20 years later, Scuderi's technology remains the industry standard.



  3. phrantic Says:

    TTFK: Quality of work seems to have no memory. Just because someone's last 10 projects have been world-changingly positive doesn't meant their next one won't be an utter failure, or worse, woo.

    It always reminds me of Dr John Dee, who did some wonderful work in mathematics, chemistry, astronomy etc., but ended his career on the run and hiding in shame from his former royal patrons because he allowed a man to convince him he could talk to angels. Through a stone. On a magic table.

  4. steveg Says:

    @phrantic: Also William McBride famous for his work on thalidomide and, later in his career, making stuff up. My mum took thalidomide while I was baking. Didn't hurt me none. ("What? It's cold, dammit. It's supposed to be that size.")

    A sentence of 8 to 12 too long? Well... perhaps for the offense, but sometimes things work out quite well... I'm thinking here of David Eastman incarcerated for the murder of ACT Police Commisoner Colin Winchester. I know people who had to deal with him prior to that; from what I heard even if he didn't commit the murder he deserves to be behind bars. Justice schmustice, sometimes, accidentally the world ends up a better place, process be damned.

  5. Alan Says:

    Where did I read about "tuned" exhaust pipes on 2-stroke motorbikes? Damn, my memory is getting fuzzy.

    Aaaanyway, I had the thought of feeding the exhaust into the top of a second cylinder, at 90 degrees to the first- creating a sort of Stirling Engine.
    I don't claim to be any type of engineer, but I'll happily accept donations to build a prototype...

  6. infojunkie Says:

    You may be interested in the revetec story another Aussie motor. I saw it demonstrated at the Sydney motor show in the 90s and have been following it over the years. it is apparently nearing production now in China and Brazil with testing and possible interest in Germany.

  7. derrida derider Says:

    As Dan has pointed out in earlier posts, the laws of thermodynamics set strict limits on the efficiency of ANY heat engine, whatever its design. Aint no such thing as a free lunch in this area - I can confidently predict that no gadget or new engine design will produce much advance on present technology.

    When I first heard about Firepower I immediately knew on these grounds it had to be a scam. So how come it got so much favourable press, got listed on the stock exchange and sucked in supposedly shrewd investors? Unfortunately the scientific ignorance of journos is profound, but they had only to have a chat about it with any engineer or physicist to have got themselves a tremendous scoop.

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