Fuel-saving devices and other hoaxes to avoid

What you need to know:

  • PS: For the sake of propriety, we will steer clear of using brand names or the names of those pushing these products, but if you have encountered any of them, or worse yet, bought any, you will know what we are talking about. Now, read on, and give us your feedback, positive or negative, via the address at the end of this piece. For the proprietors peddling these things, go slow on me. It is not personal

I am sure many of you saw this coming: the second chapter of my hoax stories. This time round, they are much closer to home. Schemes (I will not call them scams just yet) either run by Kenyans or people using Kenyans.

Before proceeding, can I just lay down a disclaimer? I have not seen any of the products I am going to discuss here, mostly because I am not sure I even want to see them (that is the scientist and car buff in me talking).

Also, after not-so-lengthy discussions with the peddlers of these products, I am of the opinion that they are innocent and unaware that they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes using witnesses and ambassadors who, like the investors of water-powered engines, know precious little about how a car works.

I have read the blurb on how the manufacturers claim that these things work: one seems almost plausible while the other, well… let us just say it is good to learn the basics of how the electrical system of a car is wired and whether or not this affects the physical aspect (shape or form) of an engine’s internals in any way.

As is the norm with money-making scams… sorry, schemes... these two are aimed at an area we are sensitive about, that being the fuel economy of our cars. Pump-side expenses recur with such frequency as to be the most commonly discussed issue concerning motor vehicles, both by engineers and laymen.

It also makes this field fertile for seeds of hope, however unfounded and misguided these hopes may be. Anybody would love a solution to the numerous bothersome trips to the fuel forecourts, and so when someone steps up with magic pellets, snake oil, or a spell to chant every morning with the aim of improving fuel economy, he is guaranteed an audience.

These two certainly did; not only did they get an audience, they also got ambassadors (some of whom even appeared on TV taking liberties with statistics and throwing percentages around without much forethought).

These ambassadors included housewives, bank managers, high profile personalities, and a slew of other people who had two things in common: 1. They had used the product and, 2. They were not from the motoring industry. Not once has any of these peddlers included an automotive engineer, a motoring journalist… not even a mechanic as a witness. A telling sign? You tell me. Here are their stories:

The fuel filter that is more than just a filter: This little device reminds me of the SLX I talked about recently, in that it comes along with a whole lot of scientific explanations. Again, like Leach’s idea, it is convincing — to those who feared organic chemistry and were confused by the mole concept. This is the basis of operation:

The filter device is installed somewhere along the fuel system, typically just after the fuel pump but before the actual fuel filter (or another way of looking at it is before the fuel lines reach the engine bay).

It is some cylindrical thing that wraps around the fuel line and emits a strong magnetic field (now we are in the world of physics, another greatly feared subject… so few will have enough knowledge to raise an argument).

Now, hydrocarbons, which are derived from crude oil, are made of long molecules of carbon and hydrogen in form of chains. Petrol and diesel are hydrocarbons (with a few additives, but that is beside the point).

The idea behind this fuel filter (I do not know why they call it a “filter”) is that the strong magnetic field breaks these long chain molecules into smaller chain molecules and, if possible, into even smaller chain molecules, all in the name of “optimising combustion efficiency”. They say the lengthy molecules do not burn too well in the combustion chamber, so breaking them up into little bits improves their combustion properties.

Makes sense? Yes and no.

Yes, because from a chemical reaction point of view, having many smaller units rather than one large unit increases the effective surface area for reaction. That is why in the lab we prefer to use substances in powder form (or “filings” in the case of iron) instead of just great, big lumps of stuff. It makes for a faster, more efficient, and more complete reaction.

However, hydrocarbons are funny things, because for one, they are usually in liquid or gas form and you cannot fragment them the way you would a solid.

Also, hydrocarbons are defined by the number of carbon atoms in them. For the sake of example, I will use octane, which should be instantly identifiable to petrol-heads out there. It has eight carbon atoms per molecule (hence the prefix “oct-”).

If the molecule were to be split evenly, it would yield two butane molecules of four carbon atoms each. Now we have moved from a petrol additive to cooking gas (butane and propane are used in cooking gas cylinders). See where I am going with this?
If you split it even further, you get four ethane molecules of two carbon atoms each…. Now we are drawing closer to tequila and Nubian gin (chang’aa or ethanol).

My point is this: splitting a hydrocarbon molecule into smaller parts yields products that may have nothing to do with the original substance. When I brought up this issue with said peddler, he raised a counter-point:

“Ah, you see, we are not splitting the molecules themselves. These molecules come bunched up together and entangled within themselves. What we are doing is isolating the molecules for a smoother flow of fuel and better combustion. We are making the units smaller, not by breaking the molecules but by isolating them into itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny droplets that are good for combustion.”

What is the work of the injectors then? No answer.

The fellow may have a point, though. However, his claim ranks alongside that of the Pakistani engineer. “Secret calculations” do not hold water in the critical mind of a scientist, and though the peddler did not say anything about secret calculations, he should know that getting molecules to part ways with each other requires a lot of energy input, and a simple magnet will not do the trick.

And since the magnetism takes place just outside of the fuel tank, within the fuel lines, and the separated molecules continue travelling together within the same fluid medium through the narrow fuel lines to the engine, what is to stop them from getting tangled up again before they get to the fuel filter/injectors?

Why do we not see motoring giants applying this technology? No racing team that I know of uses it, no major manufacturer has said anything about it: not Toyota, not Mercedes, not Ferrari, not Volkswagen, not General Motors, nobody.

The makers of this device (and their minion housewife ambassadors) claim a 27 per cent improvement in fuel economy. Surely that is a figure substantial enough to attract the attention of a major engine builder, isn’t it? Why have they not snapped it up?

Light at the end of the dashboard: This second bit of kit I saved for last because I reckon some of you may have as big a laugh as I did when you read its claimed abilities. Installation is simple: it is what the IT world calls plug-and-play.

We have a little glowy thingy which you plug into the cigarette lighter port in the dashboard and voila! Economy improves by 27 per cent (also) instantly. Apart from preventing you from smoking while driving, I do not see how else it would affect anything. This was the point at which I was directed to their website.

These are the instructions on how to use this device, from the web page: “1. Turn off your car engine. 2. Plug in firmly into the cigarette ( auto plug) socket. 3. Turn your car engine and drive” (verbatim).

Doing this will give you access to a variety of benefits, which include, according to the web page, fuel savings between 10 per cent to 30 per cent, brighter headlights, stabilised voltage, reduced engine pressure, improved engine torque, reduced emission, high ignition power, improved horse power, improved air condition systems, smoother gear shift, clear audio AV system, and prolonged battery, plugs and “altermotor” lifespan….

All this is supposed to happen when the LED light blinks on after plugging it in. I am not even sure where to start. The device is a tiny little thing that you plug into the cigarette lighter port. How does it give smooth gear shifts if you have a manual transmission?

Does it change gears for you? That is not even the point. How is the cigarette lighter connected to the transmission? How does it save fuel? How does it make your headlamps brighter? If you have 100-watt bulbs, the only way you will make them brighter is to swap them with units of higher wattage.

What voltage does this thing stabilise? Why does that voltage need stabilising, anyway? “Reduced engine pressure”? What is that? Economy, torque and power improvement: can this thing access the engine control unit (ECU) through the socket? I cannot go on, this is simply ridiculous.

What it is and how does it work?

I asked for an explanation and there was none forthcoming, the excuse being that if I understood the technology inside it, I would run off to China with my new-found knowledge and start spewing knock-offs: that is how good it is (allegedly).

I do not think so. The response and claims I received just barely managed to avoid words like “magic” and “miracle”. The only time light and miracles go together is in religious teachings. And fantasy movies.

This is a device that has been specifically banned by several automotive websites in the US, and in my hands I had someone trying to get it some free air-time in my column. Well, he got his wish.

My verdict, take it or leave it: Now, the first device looks like a workable idea, only that the makers tend to skip some really vital aspects of chemistry and physics in their explanations. Also, it seems a bit irrelevant.

Direct injection, swirl control valves, stratified fuel delivery, infinitely timed pulses, and the use of really small (multi-point) injector nozzles makes for combustion as complete as we will ever have. The key to efficiency now is to minimise energy losses in form of heat.

So we are barking up the wrong tree on that one. The second device has no place in the world outside of Harry Potter; where a light glows and magic happens and suddenly things are much better than they were a moment earlier. They should try something else.

In both instances, credibility went down when, during the discussions, we got to the point where we agreed there was only one way to find out. Put the devices to the test. Both agents insisted I buy the product first.

I do not want either of these things, I already have the best fuel saving kit one can ever have: my right foot and whatever material lies between my ears. No, can’t do, they said. No demo units, you test it on the premise that you will buy it.

For people making such big claims, you would think that they would have one or two demo units available for review. If Jaguar Land Rover can spare 15 vehicles each costing Sh20 million just for gambolling in the Moroccan desert, I do not see how these folks cannot spare an item the size of a cologne bottle (or smaller) for the same purpose.

I was not asked to buy the supercharged Jaguar XJ saloon I drove after my recent road test in Durban was done, was I? The whole setup reeked of someone desperate to make a sale, if only a single one, to justify their existence as an outlet for these products.

Be smart. Improvement in fuel economy begins in your mind and gets transferred down to your right foot. I have said time and again, driving style is the biggest determinant of fuel consumption if all factors are kept constant. I stand by my statement.

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