POSTSCRIPT / July 18, 2000 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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And now, here comes an air-powered vehicle!

SINCE you must be reeling by now from an overdose of Dingel’s water-powered Toyota, how about an air-powered car for a change? Yes, this time, imagine good old polluted air in your fuel tank!

Not really pure air, but actually nitrogen, which is the biggest component at 78 percent of the air we breathe. Our inventor Daniel D. Dingel claims using hydrogen extracted from water, but this American researcher we’ll tell you about uses nitrogen taken from the air.

Dingel feeds the hydrogen into the combustion engine where a spark explodes it to push the piston and turn the crankshaft. On the other hand, this American expert feeds liquid nitrogen, which pushes the piston when the liquid expands to go back to its gaseous state.

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THERE are also small smokeless electric cars and carts already in use — some of them we see in the fairways and the airports — quietly ferrying golfers and tired travelers here and there over short distances.

But we’ll look at electric cars some other time, which, by the way, are now being mandated by some states, especially California. (Hey, how about solar-powered cars for this country that boasts of an oversupply of sunshine?)

We mentioned electric cars because this American professor took a swipe at them by saying they are inefficient, inconvenient, and not nearly as environmentally-friendly as they are alleged to be.

Even among inventors, it seems, it is still each one to his own professional prejudices.

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SCIENCE writer Lee Dye (“DyeHard Science”) identified the American in an ABC News feature as Abe Hertzberg, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington. He heads “Project Smogmobile,” named after the car in the L’il Abner cartoon that runs on air pollution.

But Hertzberg is honest enough to admit that he is just building on older ideas and experiments. He concedes also that while his prototype air-powered car produces 15 horsepower to take it around the neighborhood, it is far from perfected.

With more research (he just got a $360,000 grant for that), however, he is confident that his baby would soon wow ‘em. We wonder how much our Department of Science and Technology gives to Filipino inventors, Dingel for example, to help them in their research.

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THE research team of Hertzberg converted an old “air motor” to run on nitrogen. They mounted it in an old mail truck that they now take around on test drives. It’s not ready yet for something like the 1,000-kilometer run we’ve suggested for Dingel’s hydrocar, but it makes short trips around the block with people on board.

If our Dingel gets hydrogen gas by breaking down water into its hydrogen and oxygen components, Hertzberg extracts free nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and supercools it to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, which is cool enough to convert the gas to liquid.

The liquid nitrogen is then pumped through a heat exchanger, like a car radiator, which uses the heat in the atmosphere to make the liquid warm enough to vaporize. The volume of the liquid nitrogen quickly expands 700 times as it turns to gas. The expanding gas pushes the piston in the air motor, forcing it to move as in a conventional engine.

Hertzberg said similar past experiments have failed because frost built up in the heat exchanger and stalled the process. He said his team was able to build a heat exchanger that does not freeze up.

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IN saying that electric cars are inefficient, inconvenient, and not really that environmentally-friendly, Hertzberg points out that batteries of electric cars have to be recharged, adding to the demands on power plants, and that they use toxic metals.

“If you spill liquid nitrogen,” he says, “it just sits there in a pool and slowly evaporates (back into the atmosphere from where it came.)”

He claims that it is cheaper to produce nitrogen fuel than a comparable amount of gasoline. Nitrogen can be extracted from the air and liquefied in giant refrigeration plants. While this is being done, pollutants such as carbon dioxide can be removed from the air.

He concedes that the mass introduction of new motor vehicles running on alternative fuels would require revamping the automotive industry and the fuel distribution network. He admits that that takes some doing.

* * *

BACK here, on behalf of the thousands who must use the North Luzon Expressway everyday, we beg the Philippine National Construction Co., which operates the 90-km tollway, to please fix the road naman.

The road to Heaven, my favorite preacher says, is paved with good intentions — but the tollway to the North is paved with Hell!

Do not blame the continuous rains that have left craters on the poor-quality asphalt and turned the shoulders into watery ravines. The expressway was foisted on us as an alternate artery linking Central Luzon and the capital region under any weather condition.

Remember, we’re paying toll for safety, convenience and economy. But where does the money go? Mahiya-hiya naman kayo!

* * *

THIS monumental management failure of the PNCC has resulted in:

  1. The end-to-end trip on the expressway now takes twice as long, because vehicles have to slow down to avoid the craters. (Actually, one cannot avoid the ruts since they are everywhere.)
  2. Vehicles break down or start rattling and developing weakened joints as they are jarred beyond tolerable levels by the pockmarked pavement.
  3. Vehicles tend to graze one another as they swerve to avoid not only the holes but also other vehicles that are also swerving, sometimes under heavy rains that reduce visibility.
  4. The serious wear and tear of vehicles and the fouling up of schedules result in huge losses to toll-paying motorists.

* * *

THE North expressway is supposed to be not an ordinary road. That’s why we taxpayers still pay toll (P20.50 end-to-end) for using it. Soon, we would also be paying a still another imposition, the Road User Tax, for using it!

Taxpayers whose taxes are supposed to go to building and maintaining roads are forced to pay again when they use the expressway. Now when we pay extra, we expect something extra benefits in return. What we get is extra “pahirap.

The criminal idea behind the tollway has not changed from the time of the dictator, when the road was operated for him by a crony. It was meant primarily to be a milking cow and it has remained so until this day. Only the milkmen’s faces have changed.

The rains have confirmed to us that the people running PNCC are not interested in giving extra service. They cannot even give normal service. They are just interested in collecting toll and running away with it.

* * *

WE saw this skewed management attitude of PNCC when we proposed the establishment of a special Traffic Safety and Discipline Zone (SafDiz with a long “a”) for the North expressway.

They said it was a good idea, but because it would just improve the service without adding to their revenue, they did not give it serious consideration.

It was a rare opportunity for the PNCC to do something not only for themselves but also for the country by saving lives and property while disciplining and educating Filipinos on the basic duties of citizenship.

* * *

HOW come reckless Filipino drivers are suddenly disciplined and law-abiding when they enter Camp John Hay and the Subic Free Port? Because they know the certainty of being caught and penalized if they break the rules.

Let’s do the same thing on the North Luzon Expressway! This should be easy to do since the road is in a controlled area.

Once a driver enters the expressway, his whole being should be immediately keyed to the fact that he is entering a strictly policed zone where his usual driving antics will not be tolerated.

As the Philippine Motor Association and several motorists commented, the SafDiz idea was simple, feasible, inexpensive and timely. But the PNCC was not interested. They did not see any money-making angle to it?

* * *

IMAGINE a family driving out on a weekend. Upon entering the expressway, the father at the wheel automatically becomes more safety conscious, calls out to the kids at the back to double-check their door locks and seat belts, warns them against throwing out litter, sticks to speed limits, keeps a safe distance, avoids unnecessary lane-changing and passing on the shoulder, gives way to vehicles obviously in trouble, et cetera.

Word of mouth alone would spread this gospel of safety and discipline on the North expressway. Reinforced by mass media, this project could be a model for similar campaigns elsewhere.

To catch the attention of the PNCC, however, maybe we should revise our SafDiz proposal to include a feature on how they could rake in more millions within that controlled roadway.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 18, 2000)

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