When energy costs climb, people look for the Miracle Solution.

Fresh out of college, I went to work in a sand foundry. Part of my duties involved keeping tabs on the sand mixes used in our molds and cores. We had regular visits from sales reps pushing this or that kind of sand additive, guaranteed to reduce rejects, improve surface finishes and a host of other benefits. Some were legitimate; others, highly doubtful. Whenever we saw one of the latter, our sand technician, moustache flaring, would growl, “Whiffle Dust!”

The energy business has similar products. When energy costs climb, people begin looking for ways to cut their consumption. A lot can be done through good housekeeping, frequent maintenance and the use of legitimate, accepted energy-saving technologies. However, like dieters, many people get drawn to the Miracle Solution -- the product that claims improved fuel economy and reduced stack emissions the quick and easy way. Just bolt it on or throw it into the fuel tank, and your worries are over. The energy crunch of the late 1970s and early '80s really brought a lot of them out of the woodwork, and with energy prices climbing rapidly again, another generation appears to be heading our way.

I’m going to look at these devices and fuel enhancers in the next two columns, examining the theories behind them, the claims they made, and whether they were valid. What you learn here might help you make an informed decision if you’re asked to consider one.

Most of these products were developed for gasoline or diesel engines, but many also were marketed for stationary gas-and oil-burning applications. I’m no expert on internal combustion applications, so my comments will be limited to how they performed on ovens, furnaces and boilers. Most of them fell into three classifications:

Fuel Ionizers or Polarizers. These claimed to improve efficiency and emissions by aligning the fuel molecules so they would burn more thoroughly and cleanly. Usually clamped onto the fuel line, they used magnets or an electrostatic field to do the aligning. Most claimed to be equally effective on liquid and gaseous fuels.

Fuel Additives. These were chemicals to add to liquid fuels to improve their combustion characteristics in engines, and to a lesser extent, oil-burning stationary combustion equipment. Formulas usually were closely guarded secrets, but many consisted of an alcohol base with smaller amounts of other chemicals added. Customary method of application was to add them to fuel storage tanks in a specified additive-to-fuel ratio.

Water-Injection Devices. In their most common forms, water-injection devices introduced a small amount of water or a water-alcohol mixture to the combustion process, either by evaporating it or spraying it into the airstream. There were numerous explanations why they worked, but the most coherent ones attributed the benefits to higher combustion turbulence created when the water vapor flashed to steam in the flame. Others simply referred to the practice of injecting water into high performance internal combustion engines, implying that if it was a good thing for race drivers and fighter pilots, it must be good for you, too. Although these systems were used mostly on liquid fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), some were promoted for gas-firing applications as well.

How Were They Supposed to Work, and Did They?

Ionizers and Polarizers. Some molecules are dipolar; that is, their protons and electrons are arranged so the centers of their positive and negative charges aren’t in the same location. They have a plus end and a minus end. Placed in a magnetic field, they’ll swing like compass needles to align themselves with the field. That field would be generated by the add-on magnets and electromagnetic-field generators. The gas or fuel molecules would all swing in the same direction as they passed through the field and then march in formation, just like soldiers, to their rendezvous with the combustion air.

There are only three problems with the idea.

First, most hydrocarbon gases are either non-polar or weakly dipolar. Methane and ethane absolutely will not respond to a magnetic field; propane and butane will align only in an exceptionally strong magnetic field.

Second, even if you were able to align the weakly dipolar molecules with a magnetic field, they’ll become misaligned by turbulence and bends in downstream piping, and by their own molecular motion, before they reach the burner.

And third, there’s no evidence that aligning molecules by polarity improves combustion. In fact, to get thoroughly mixed, efficient, clean combustion, most modern burners create lots of turbulence in the gas and air streams. If those neatly aligned molecules ever made it to the burner, they’d be scrambled up again.

Some liquid hydrocarbons are more strongly dipolar than the gases; theoretically, they could be aligned with a magnetic field. But, you still have to deal with Problems 2 and 3.

I’m out of space, but next issue (see link at end of article), I’ll take up fuel additives and water-injection systems.