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A Strange History of the Mysterious Gasoline Pill

One area of real research in recent years is that of energy production and energy sources. Ours is a world run by massive electrical grids and powered vehicles, all largely ultimately reliant on polluting fossil fuels at the end of the day. We have tried many avenues to get around this in our mad dash to power the world and our ever evolving technology, but so far nothing has really changed our situation drastically, with us still dependent on our gasoline and oil. Yet what if we could get around this hurdle? What if we could come up with a way to turn plentiful water into fuel for our various machines? It sounds like pure wishful thinking and science fiction, but oddly enough, over the years there have been many people who have claimed to have found a way to do just that.

One of the earliest and well-known cases of an inventor claiming to be able to turn water into gasoline was a US inventor named Louis Enricht. In 1916, Enricht claimed that he had invented a cheap substance that, when simply added to ordinary tap water, could serve as a “a substitute for gasoline that can be manufactured for a penny a gallon.” He was so confident and bold in his extravagant claims that he arranged a press conference and demonstration for reporters, first allowing them to examine a gas tank to make sure there was no gasoline in it, and then letting them actually taste the water he planned to use in order to be convinced that it was just ordinary water. Enricht then produced a pill of green liquid, which he added to the water and then filled up the gas tank of the vehicle. To the amazement of everyone, the car started and ran perfectly, as if it had gasoline in the tank. The only noticeable side effect was a strong smell of almonds. William Haskell, publisher of the Chicago Herald, would say of the amazing demonstration:

I examined the entire engine and tank. I even tasted the water before the mysterious green pill was dropped into the tank. Then I opened the petcock and examined the liquid, which now tasted like bitter almonds. I also tasted the liquid at the carburator which was the same. I was amazed when the auto started. We drove it around the city without any trouble.

Louis Enricht

It was seemingly a completely groundbreaking discovery, fueling not only the car, but also much excitement and bringing in many potential buyers for his invention, including Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company and Hudson Maxim of the Hudson Munitions Company, as well as numerous investors willing to give him millions of dollars. There were some red flags at the time, in that it appears that Enricht had once been accused of fraud back in 1903, and was also known as a bit of a huckster, but the idea of this liquid being the answer to a real gasoline substitute and his seemingly successful demonstration kept the excitement and hope alive. In the meantime, Enricht arranged another demonstration for the British Army, after which it was reported that “The car operated as expeditiously and efficiently as it would have on gasoline.”

This was all very promising indeed, but problems, doubts, and red flags began to pop up. Prominent banker Benjamin Yoakum, who had invested a million dollars into Enricht’s process, got cold feet after the inventor refused to divulge the process. Enricht would finally be forced through legal threats to show the formula to Yoakum, but when the safe deposit box where it was supposedly kept was opened, it was mysteriously gone. After this, Enricht claimed that his formula had been stolen, and although he had backups, he said he was out of ingredients and therefore could not conduct any further demonstrations. When experts began criticizing Enricht as being nothing but a snake oil salesman and proclaiming the process to be a likely hoax, all interest in the invention was lost, investors backed out, and he was seen as a fake and a charlatan.

Amazingly, even in the face of this Enricht was undeterred, in 1920 claiming to have found a way to turn peat into gasoline, even managing to raise $42,000 from investors to promote the process. However, during a demonstration it was discovered that it was all done with a hidden line that fed the gas tank gasoline, and not only that, but he had gambled away his investment money. Enricht would be convicted of grand larceny and imprisoned at Sing Sing prison, after which he was paroled a couple of years later for health reasons. He would die the following year after that, and since he never divulged his claimed secret formula or allowed the mysterious green liquid to be analyzed, any truth to it all he took to his grave.

Another amazing claim along these lines was made around the same time Enricht was peddling his amazing gasoline substitute. In 1917, a Canadian inventor and sailor in the Royal Canadian Navy by the name of John Andrews approached the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to tell him that he had invented a green powder that could turn fresh or salt water into gasoline. Like Entricht before him, Andrews arranged a demonstration and a series of tests at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where a motor boat was used, and a Commander Earl P. Jessup would say of it:

We gave Andrews a bucket of water drawn from the Navy Yard [fresh water] hydrant by one of the yard attaches. He got into his car with a gallon can which we inspected and found to be empty and a little satchel he carried with him. In about a minute he handed out the filled can which I personally carried to the open fuel tank. While pouring the liquid into the tank, Andrews held a lighted cigarette close to the liquid, which did not ignite. That showed it was not gaseous or inflammable at that part of the demonstration, which to me was most important. The engine caught just as quickly as it would have done with gasoline, and after a moment’s adjustment of the carburator, it settled down to its work, developing 75% of its rated horsepower, a remarkable showing with any fuel with so slight a readjustment of the carburetor. From a military viewpoint, it is almost impossible to visualize what such an invention means. It is so important that we have hurried an officer to Washington to make a report to the navy Department. It is obvious that Andrews has discovered a combination of chemicals which breaks down water to a form that is inert until mechanically vaporized by the carburator, when the spark causes it to burn as gasoline burns.

The Navy was very excited about it all, but there were certainly skeptics. Indeed, it would quickly debunked as a trick by some. One of the observers of the incredible demonstrations was a Dr. Miller Reese Hutchinson, Chief Engineer for Thomas A. Edison, who said of it:

I was amazed. When I went home that night I tried to figure out how he possibly could have done it. I had smelled the exhaust to make sure it wasn’t gasoline. And then it dawned on me: he must have used acetylene. By using acetone to take up the acetylene and {hen dissolving the acetone in water 1 had a satisfactory combustion mixture. ‘1 returned to the test engine and it ran perfectly on my mixture. The water, you see, was only the carrier to get the explosive into the cylinders. The action was the same as if you poured oil on ashes. The ashes will burn again, but only until the oil is exhausted. Sure, it’s a substitute for gasoline – so is picric acid. But you should see what happens to the cylinders!

In the meantime, Andrews denied any trickery, but skipped the country and fled back to Canada, claiming that he was being followed by nefarious parties who wanted to steal his invention. In later decades we have the story of a coal miner from Livingston, Illinois, and would-be inventor Guido Franc, who in the 1950s similarly claimed to have created a green powder that could transform water into gasoline, which he called “Mota,” or “atom” spelled backwards. According to Franc, the substance had originally been invented by a German scientist named Dr. Alexander Kraft, and he arranged numerous very convincing demonstrations of Mota at work, with one Gary Bolz, a consultant on carburetion and fuel engineering, saying of one such test:

The granules are dark olive green. As they enter water, they dissolve in a string of green, which begins to spread fiber-like throughout the water. As the water begins to react, there is a swirling effect. Reaction is complete in a few minutes. If the crystals are mixed in 1:1 ratio with water, the resulting fluid is highly explosive and can be detonated by a small shock. But it isn’t shock-sensitive when mixed at a normal ratio of one ounce of powder per half gallon of water. The finished fuel is lighter than water.

Franc managed to keep this up for 40 years (!), raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his invention, and dodging several accusations of fraud along the way, but he never did produce any of the actual product for his investors. He explained the reason for this as being paranoia that the oil industry was trying to suppress the formula. In 1979 it was found that not only was “Dr. Kraft” a made-up person, but that several people had come forward claiming that Franc had told them it was all a hoax. He was convicted of fraud and sentenced to five years of probation, but remained adamant that his invention was real the whole time. Unfortunately, he took any secrets he had with him when he died in 1983.

Guido Franc

There have been alleged inventors of these miraculous substances right on into later years as well. In 1983, a Chinese scientist named Wang Hongcheng announced that he had made a liquid that could turn water into fuel by adding just a few drops of it. This was pretty big news in China at the time, and brought Wang much attention, including public funding, but this alleged amazing discovery ended up causing its inventor a lot of problems as well. The Chinese government at the time was pushing to eliminate fringe ideas and pseudoscience, and unfortunately for Wang their sights turned to him. He was very publicly discredited in scientific publications and ended up sentenced 10 years to prison for fraud and deceit. It is unclear whether this was ever proven, or just how real any of his claims might have been

In 1996, an inventor from India named Ramar Pillai, of the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT), claimed that he could convert water to gasoline through the use of an herbal formula derived from a special bush. He would boil the leaves and bark of the bush in water and add secret ingredients to produce his wonder liquid, which resulted in a substance that could “burn like kerosene,” was more efficient than gasoline, and would produces no exhaust. Pillai had the full backing of the government, who gave him 20 acres of land to grow his bushes on, and he even applied for patents on the process, but although he carried out demonstrations he was mostly written off as a fraud. Nevertheless, like others before him, Pillai continued to maintain that his secret recipe was for real. Even more recently still is the businessman Tim Johnston, who allegedly created a “magic pill that cut emission and made fuel last longer.” Johnson managed to gather a staggering $100 million from investors, but his company went under anyway, and no evidence of his pill or recipe has ever come to light.

There are some common recurring themes throughout all of the cases we have looked at here. The inventor comes out with this fantastical, game-changing claim, performs some intriguing demonstrations, and then the formula behind it gets lost, hidden, or otherwise kept from the scrutiny of scientists to inevitably die with its creator. There has not once been a convincing, concrete example of these “gasoline pills” brought forward to be analyzed. There has never been any large scale production of any of them, despite the fact that they could change the world as we know it. Scientists largely say the very idea behind it is impossible, but this has been the way of science with new, challenging ideas since time unremembered so it is not an automatic strike. As far as any so-called “gasoline pill” is concerned, there is no breakthrough in sight, although the search for such a thing will likely go on for a long time.