Some years ago, a backyard mechanic on the Canadian prairies designed and built a carburetor that got fantastic gas mileage with no sacrifice of performance. He drove a car equipped with this carburetor from Winnipeg to Vancouver, averaging 130 miles per gallon for the trip (or 107 miles per US gallon).
Or did he drive 217 miles on the prairies using only 1 gallon of gasoline? News reports seemed to differ in the details.
In any case, the news reports caused a sudden drop in the stock market values of oil company stocks. One day some oil company executives showed up on the inventor’s doorstep with a suitcase full of cash and bought the plans for this wonder carburetor and all the complete and incomplete carburetors that he had built.
Or was it auto industry executives?
Or was it the government, fearing a loss in tax revenue?
Or did thieves break into his shop and steal everything?
Whatever really happened, this invention that could have saved billions of dollars for consumers has been suppressed. Occasionally however, a car that gets fantastic gas mileage is mistakenly delivered to a customer. Fairly soon the car is recalled by the manufacturer for some supposed manufacturing defect; when it is returned to the customer, it gets normal gas mileage.
Or the owner wakes up in the middle of the night and sees some men working under the hood of his car. When they realize they have been seen they quickly make their getaway. The car still drives just fine, only now it uses a whole lot more gasoline.
Or the car is stolen in the night. This is all the work of a sinister industrial conspiracy to keep us using as much gasoline as possible.
The reality? Back in the 1930’s Charles Nelson Pogue of Winnipeg obtained patents for a carburetor that he believed would dramatically increase gas mileage. Gasoline was passed through a spiral line that was heated by the exhaust manifold. This was supposed to completely vaporize the gas before it entered the combustion chamber which would make it burn more efficiently. This process would also increase the engine temperature by about 20°, which would enhance performance.
Mr. Pogue never claimed to have achieved the promised results. Nevertheless the story took off, fuelled by the public’s desire to believe in technological money-saving miracles and their willingness to believe conspiracy theories.
The patent for the Pogue carburetor has now expired and the plans are available for anyone who wants to experiment on their family sedan.
It won’t work. The gasolines in use today need to reach 450° F to completely vaporize. Gasoline was more volatile when Mr. Pogue invented his carburetor. Apparently there were working models built back then. They did achieve slightly better fuel mileage, at the cost of severely reduced performance.
Common sense would tell us that no auto manufacturer would find it advantageous to suppress such an invention. If one company could produce vehicles that got far better gas mileage than all their competitors, wouldn’t they jump at the opportunity?
The idea that increasing engine temperature will increase efficiency lacks some logic as well. If an internal combustion engine could be made 100% efficient, all the energy in the fuel would be transformed into work, not heat, and the exhaust manifold would be cold.
Very real gains in fuel efficiency have been achieved since Mr. Pogue invented his carburetor. They have been small, incremental gains, but they add up. Carburetors have been replaced by fuel injection. Engine computers manage more efficient fuel burning. Radial tires have reduced rolling resistance. Synthetic motor oils reduce friction in the engine. Lighter, more aerodynamic vehicles require less work from the engine to move them down the road. Most cars now have four or five speed transmissions, reducing fuel use at cruising speeds. Some engines are designed to allow some cylinders to cut out at cruising speeds.
Nevertheless, stories of the suppressed 200 mpg carburetor refuse to die. Why are we so gullible?
Everyone likes the idea of saving money. Many of us have a near mystical faith that technology will eventually solve all our problems. But it would serve us well to develop a healthy scepticism when we hear whispers that the government, or industry, or some other sinister force doesn’t want us to know about some almost miraculous breakthrough in technology.