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
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
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
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
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
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.