The author discusses his ongoing efforts to convert an old car to an acetylene engine so he could run it on acetylene gas.
With some modifications, Leland Barber converted a gasoline engine to an acetylene engine.
PHOTO: LELAND BARBER
With all the brouhaha about the price of gasoline these days — and the very real concern over its availability through the coming years — it seems senseless to waste time "beating a dead horse" when there are fuel alternatives just waiting to be uncovered or improved upon.
One such substitute, ethyl alcohol, has been used before and is now being "rediscovered." Another, hydrogen, is also quite feasible and is presently the object of several research programs being carried out by private industry.
But I'm convinced that I've come up with my own answer to the petroleum "pickle" we're presently in . . . and, since I'm a welder by trade, the solution has literally been at my fingertips for nearly 30 years: acetylene gas!
Of course, the details of my unique system weren't worked out overnight. In fact, the acetylene fuel project has taken over 1,000 hours of my spare time and set me back nearly $1,000 ... and I still haven't worked out all the bugs. I've come a long way since 1974 — when I first conceived the idea — though, and I've covered a lot of ground in just the past few months.
Now before I'm dismissed as some kind of cashew, I'd better explain a thing or two about acetylene. Basically, the gas is produced on a small scale by mixing calcium carbide — which is a product of limestone, coal, and heat — with water. The resulting vapor is, of course, highly flammable and has been used for illumination as well as welding. Actually, at the peak of the "acetylene age," gas-fired lamps were used to provide lighting for factories, schools, thoroughfares, and even private homes . . . and calcium carbide generators were a common sight. Even today, remote areas, such as mine shafts and marine shipping lanes, often utilize acetylene-powered torches in lieu of electric bulbs.
Naturally, any flammable gas is potentially dangerous, and acetylene is certainly no exception. But the violent nature that's been attributed to "welder's ether" has come about as a result of that substance's being compressed for convenient storage and transport. When the gas is merely allowed to form in a regulated fashion — and is then immediately drawn off for a specific use — it's not nearly as touchy as when under pressure .. . and the fact that acetylene generators were used by regular folks all over America and abroad is proof that the gas can be safe when handled with due caution.
When I started my project, I knew as well as the next guy that open flame lights and internal combustion engines are two different animals . . . but I also knew that many automobiles, trucks, and forklifts have been running on propane or even cooking gas very successfully for quite a few years . . . and that's what got me thinking. I wasn't really looking for a "miracle fuel" that would solve all our energy problems overnight . . . I was just trying to come up with a practical substitute that would be economically feasible and could be used as an alternative to gasoline.
After all, although propane is fairly inexpensive (it sells for the equivalent of as little as 55¢ a "gallon" in some areas), it's still a petroleum derivative, and thus both its market price and its availability could be affected by the state of this nation's oil supplies in the future. Acetylene, on the other hand, is a product of calcium carbide ... and that substance can be manufactured from coal and lime, both of which are abundant right here at home!
These days, though, calcium carbide can be rather difficult to find on the store shelves. And when I finally did locate some at a camping and outdoor supply shop, the $6.00-per-pound price nearly floored me. Fortunately, I soon found that such large markups apply only to small quantities, and that the going commercial price for 100 pounds of the rock-like substance is about $20.
Naturally, my next question was, "How long can a given amount of calcium carbide power a car . . . assuming that the theory even works?" And, of course, the only way to find the answer was to do it . . . the best way I knew how: by the seat of my pants! Luckily, I had an old Chevy sedan that'd been sitting in my yard for a while . . . too good to scrap or sell, but just fine to experiment on (and maybe to blow the cylinder heads off of)!
I started rather crudely in an attempt to get the engine to run without driving the car. After locating a calcium carbide generator — and a good supply of the fuel — in Vermont, I began tinkering with the carburetion system. Figuring that a propane carburetor would work best, since it was designed to use a gaseous rather than a liquid fuel, I welded up a metal duct pipe to serve two purposes:  It provided a mount for the propane (soon to be acetylene) carb that allowed the flammable gas to enter the throat of the original carburetor, and  it furnished a convenient dual-fuel capability . . . because I had fabricated an air inlet valve on its upper surface that could be opened when the car was burning gasoline and the acetylene system was shut down.
Then, after I had connected a length of single-strand acetylene hose from the stationary gas generator to the propane carburetor and made a few "guesstimated" adjustments to the latter piece of equipment, I filled my miniature acetylene "factory" with the proper amounts of water and calcium carbide (according to the manufacturer's recommendations) and opened the control valve slightly. As I fully expected, a hissing sound indicated that gas was being produced . . . and the moment of truth was upon me. When I turned the ignition key, the engine came to life . . . my system worked!
My next step was to try to fabricate a calcium carbide generator that would fit in the trunk of my vehicle . .. and, even more important, a unit that was safe enough to use on a regular transportation basis. An automobile can be forced to perform some pretty wild maneuvers in traffic, and I had to be sure that there was no danger of excess gas being produced because of water inadvertently splashing on my supply of fuel pebbles. After several months of work, I've recently come up with a generating unit that works perfectly . . . so well, in fact, that I'm conducting a patent search on its design.
But even with a portable gas generator installed, I have some more tinkering to do with the fuel delivery system. My goal is to provide good engine control up to speed, but at the same time balance the air/fuel ratio to prevent a rich — and hence — wasteful mixture. Recently I have been working with some new components and designs that make the system safer and ultimately more practical . . . including an improved metering device of my own design and an anti-backfire valve that virtually prevents accidental (and disastrous) flashbacks from reaching the calcium carbide generator.
In short, although I don't have all the answers yet, I've come a long way in a few months and I feel downright pleased at this point. Not only have I demonstrated the car to the local press and run up some miles on it, but I've gathered some preliminary economy figures to indicate that — at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, at least — I can expect far better mileage from each dollar's worth of calcium carbide fuel than I can from the equivalent amount of gasoline . .. and these days, that's saying something.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Although author Lee Barber has indeed successfully run his car on acetylene, he strongly reminds us — and any of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers who might consider experimenting with acetylene as a motor fuel — that he is a factory-trained welder and has had 30 years of experience with the gas. Anyone trying to duplicate his success had best be warned that unless he or she understands the principles of acetylene thoroughly, real danger does exist.
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