Catalytic converters fitted to cars' tail pipes try to scrub dirty exhaust. While at that,they also bring down the mileage you get. And they are no good on diesel vehicles. S.Gopalakrishnan's approach is more fundamental. His invention --the Hydrodrive Electronic Converter-- prevents the creation of dirty exhaust in the first place. It promotes fuller use of the fuel to increase your mileage. And, it works on both petrol and diesel vehicles.
His struggle since 1996 to make his idea accepted is an example of the odds Indians face in a system not yet tuned to encourage talent and creativity. Having said that, his saga is also one of optimism for he is likely to be 'discovered' soon. Sooner, if after reading this you get into some activism.
Gopalakrishnan is another of those lesser known Indians who despite modest backgrounds,think big, put in the hard work and unconsciously add value to the nation's image. His grandfather was a village officer. In India, succeeding generations reach a little higher. His father topped the post-graduate course in Chemistry at Annamalai University and entered Government service.And Gopalakrishnan graduated in Mechanical Engineering from the PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore in 1973. His class mates remember him for his exploratory bent of mind. He actively assisted a professor's research into fluid couplings.
His investigations into diesel economy began in 1978, while employed with Greaves Cotton. Sales of diesel engines depended on the Indian fishermen. Economy was a big issue with him. They tried feeding cool air into the engine as a form of mild super-charging. The results were indifferent. The closed economy prompted no competition and the matter drifted.
Soon, Gopalakrishnan returned to his old love: fluid couplings. He quit his job at Greaves to set up a successful manufacturing business-- Hydrodrive. His couplings were good enough to find acceptance in discriminating quarters such as the Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO]. It was a steady good business.
In 1996, when a globalising Indian economy woke up to the gathering auto emission problem, catalytic converters got mandated for cars. Gopalakrishnan stopped in his tracks and wondered: "What about diesel engines? CatCons don't work on them. And yet, we burn 400 million litres of diesel per year vs. 80 million of gasoline"
A problem and a potential:
Thus began Gopalakrishnan's quest. There somehow had to be a 'solution' as against the 'fix' that CatCons were. He pored over technical literature for new approaches. An article going back to 1921 talked of using microwaves to crack aromatics. Microwaves! And that became Gopalakrishnan's point of departure.
It was clear from technical literature that microwaves -- yes, the ones you cook with -- can act at the molecular level on hydrocarbons to render waxes and sulphur as 'burnable' fuel. Instead of these generating noxious pollutants, they would now participate in adding to engine power. [ You can read a technical explanation here]. The problem was till then microwaves worked only at voltages upwards of 1 kilo volt AC whereas vehicles usually run on 12 or 24 volts DC. Again, a practical device -- in contrast with your oven -- had to be small enough to fit under the hood. Finally, it had to have enough power to process the constantly varying quantity of fuel that a vehicle needs.
After four sleepless months in 1996, Gopalakrishnan and a team of 20 --funded by the fluid coupling business -- came up with a prototype. They readied his battered old Maruti Suzuki van --with 110,000 km on the clock-- for a 'before' and 'after' test. This was how it went: 'Before': Carbon monoxide [CO], 6% and Hydrocarbons [HC], 1900ppm. 'After': CO = 0.5% and HC = 1100ppm! After the delirious team drove the van another 100 kM, HC came down to 500ppm! And because what used to be 'muck' in the fuel had now been microwaved to burn, economy rose 13% even on the aging van. Then he fitted it on a new van: emissions approached zero.
He then began to fit them everywhere - petrol and diesel, vehicular and stationary, small cars to metro buses, auto-rickshaws to highway trucks. Results confirmed original findings: the Hydrodrive Converter reduces pollution dramatically and to the delight of users, increases yield from fuel. He priced them at Rs.6000 each but gave away many to obtain feedback. There are today over 7000 of them in use. In a General Motors built Opel Corsa 2001, the converter meets Euro-4 standards, due only in 2005. [Gopalakrishnan is willing to let you have a list of users you may call. Please click this to send him a mail.]
The heartache phase:
By 1998 Gopalakrishnan was confident enough to submit a technical paper for presentation at USA's prestigious Society of Automobile Engineers' [SAE] conference in Oct,1998. As is their practice SAE sent the paper to two reviewers, Ford and Sandia National Laboratories. After a few queries which Gopalakrishnan responded to,the paper was accepted and listed for presentation. A few days before his departure however, came the news that the paper had been withdrawn. The reason? India had carried out nuclear tests at Pokhran and the US sanction were on-- Hydrodrive's supply of couplings to ISRO prohibited him from using a US platform!
A couple of decades ago this would have been a terminal set back. But it is a different India today -- more networked, more confident and more assertive. The story of Hydrodrive being shown the door ran all day on TVI, a business news channel. Other channels swung in to do short documentaries. SunTV did a series of interviews with Hydrodrive users. Reuters ran a story. Dr. G.V.Ramakrishna, that no-nonsense bureaucrat, wrote an article in the Financial Express. Prof. R.M.Vasagam the Vice-Chancelor of Anna University, Chennai caused the rejected paper to be presented to an august audience that included many foreigners. Voith the German firm came calling. Venture capitalists showed interest. The far Eastern Economic Review gave it the Asian Innovation Award:Gold.
The road ahead:
There was a lot of excitement but little progress by way of scaling up the invention and reaching world markets through licenses. Why? One reason is the current state of confusion over a national fuel policy. Alarmed at Delhi's pollution problem the Supreme Court has decreed that all diesel buses be replaced by CNG ones. That is easier said than done-- it will be decades before CNG will be available on tap across the country. Though the Mashelkar Committee Report that recommends a multi-fuel policy has been accepted by the Delhi Govt., the Supreme Court is yet to do so. Also, regrettably, the Mashelkar Committee failed to take notice of the well publicised Hydrodrive Converter; it could have easily caused a rigorous evaluation, helped Hydrodrive create intellectual property rights and finessed the fuel debate with satisfaction all around.
The second reason for Hydrodrive's difficulties is the threat perception. Auto-makers do not want it as they wish to make a calibrated entry to Euro- 3 norms and Hydrodrive may leap-frog to Euro- 4, denying intervening opportunities. Many car-owners will simply 'upgrade' by fitting a Hydrodrive converter. Since diesel engines do not carbonise at all, additive makers and parts sellers would be affected. For the same reason, workshops, nozzle and fuel pump makers would face lower volumes. Since the number of hours between lubricating oil change is vastly increased, their marketers are yet another glum lobby. Oddly, as better fuel economy affects volumes sold by gas stations, they would be sullen too. But these are issues all innovations face and will go away when consumer education succeeds.
A third reason is the Government's overload. India is such an unwieldy country to rule, that people in power can respond only to shouting. So readers of this story can do some 'shouting'. Put this story in circulation by sending it to as many people as you can. Click this link to see a list of email id's of key people in government who you can send a 'please do something' letter. Maybe the Government can give a subsidy to lower the device's cost and after evaluation, mandate its fitment in all vehicles.
The final reason of course is the inventor himself. For all his technical knowledge, hard work and integrity, Gopalakrishnan is no adept at business and marketing. In a developed economy an MBA would have joined him by now to prepare a business plan, publicise the idea and tie-up investors. This doesn't happen easily in India as yet. Maybe one of you reading this has the energy, means and skills. Why don't you get in touch with him?
If you have a nose for business this will interest you: It has been estimated by the Mashelkar Committee that in order to upgrade vehicles to Euro- 3 and refineries to produce an acceptable fuel, the change over cost would be Rs.60,000 crores or $30 billion. In this approach the focus is on fuel management. With Hydrodrive fitted, all manner of fuel can be 'managed' at the vehicle level. At todays cost per piece, the bill for upgrading all of India's 10,000,000 vehicles is Rs.6,000 crores. Maybe the final bill will be half that if economies of scale play their part. And India may lead the world on a quicker path path to Euro-4.
Hydrodrive Systems and Controls Pvt. Ltd
PO Box 5076, No 69, Industrial Estate
Chennai-600 096, (India)
Phone : (091-44) 4960287
Fax : (091-44) 4915110