Ford Global Technologies generates most ideas internally, employing 1,200 innovators—an alphabet soup of Bachelors and Masters and Ph.D.s from more than 60 countries, who file around 500 patents a year from gleaming Death Star?size facilities such as the Scientific Research Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan, and the Forschungszentrum in Aachen, Germany. Outsiders like Singh are encouraged to submit through the Web site, and every year, 5,000 ideas pour in from inventors, academics, mechanics, customers and even children.
But of course, submitting with the masses was not Singh’s style. After all, he had conquered the internal combustion engine; he didn’t want to just click through a legal waiver and throw his life’s work, his lottery ticket, into a virtual wishing well, with no promise of return. Instead he wrote directly to the company president, and he did it by mail, with stamps and a typed letter and his standard spark plug photograph. He wanted to be recognized, singled out, and ushered through the front door. When he found himself repeatedly referred to the public portal, Singh simply took his business elsewhere.
Mostly, Singh spent his hope and energy writing to scientists. Surely, he thought, engineers would understand the significance of his idea! Or at least offer insight to what was happening inside his scratched cylinders. Singh writes the way he thinks, and his letters were excitable, florid documents in which his theories on combustion, turbulence and the environment were drawn in multiple colors and emphasized with triple interrobangs and exclamation marks.
The scientists’ replies were more compact. He claimed to have conquered the internal combustion engine? Using poor fuel on engines of antiquated design, evaluated without scientific instruments and in third-world conditions? Had he tested the design for 500,000 miles, they wondered, as a proper R&D lab would? He hadn’t—none of his
modified engines had done more than 65,000 road miles. Had he tested it on non-Indian vehicles or with the kinds of fuel used in the developed world? (He hadn’t.) Had he put it on a proper dynamometer, tested horsepower and torque? (No, but there’s a reason....) Could he send them an official printout from a five-gas analyzer indicating the oxides of nitrogen and carbon and the unburned hydrocarbons and total fuel economy? In a word, no.
It was possible that Singh’s invention was useful for the inefficient engines and poor-grade gasoline that crowd the Bangalore-Mysore road—but of course, any modern modification would improve on those ICE dinosaurs. So how, the scientists asked, did he know that his modification really did anything? Singh explained about the quiet and the low rpms, the blue spark plugs and clean tailpipes. “What more proof do we need?” he’d ask. “What more does the world need?”
As the scientists had made clear, what the world needed was proof of concept, in the form of hard, numerical data. But in Singh’s India, getting numbers is not as easy as you might imagine. First there’s the price: The most basic dyno test costs 25,000 rupees, or about $550, plus the cost of the engines, parts, assistants and fuel. That’s real money to amateurs anywhere; in India, where the average person earns around $250 a year, it’s real close to impossible.
Even if you can manage the money, testing in India is a difficult proposition. Singh repeatedly beseeched Mico-Bosch, a Bangalore subsidiary of the German dyno-testing giant, to let him pay for an afternoon’s test, and was just as repeatedly blown off. As he quickly learned, there are only three government-authorized dyno-testing facilities in all of India, each used almost exclusively for manufacturers. An amateur inventor here—even one with 25,000 rupees in his pocket—can’t just walk in off the street and test any old engine he likes, at least not without the written permission of the engine’s manufacturer.
“I imagined that these great men would say, 'OK, let us get down to the bloody bottom line! Let us see about what on earth can be happening!’” Singh says. “Or perhaps, at the very least, be willing to take my money.”
The rule requiring manufacturer consent is apparently an effort to prevent individuals from disputing the official data on horsepower and emissions, as published by importers, manufacturers and the Indian government. “They don’t want any Ralph Naders popping up here,” Singh explains weakly.
In November 2002 Singh actually received one such permission from a manufacturer to test his modification on its engines. The manufacturer was Briggs and Stratton, and the engines were two 149cc side valves. Singh borrowed $3,000 and drove the 500 miles to the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) test facilities in Pune, but day after day, his test was delayed. He waited in a cheap hotel for two weeks, pacing, smoking, burning money. “It was a very frustrating experience,” Singh says, wringing the tension from his graying temples with permanently grease-stained fingers. “Sometimes it was like a bloody test of will.”
Finally he was allowed to bring his engines and hook them to a Benz EC-70 dynamometer with a five-gas analyzer and a Benz gravimetric fuel-measuring device. A week later, he
got his results. According to ARAI, at between 2,000 and 2,800 rpm, Singh’s modified engine used between 10 and 42 percent less fuel than its unmodified twin, with no appreciable losses in torque or power. And, as he suspected, it ran cooler too—as much as 16
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.