BRADENTON — There's good news from the run-your-car-on-water set at the HHO Games & Exposition: Unlike at the last expo, no one's hydrogen fuel generator blew its lid on the drive to the event.
That's a sign of progress for a fledgling industry fighting for acceptance. True believers say it's not the only one.
"This is going to change the way you drive your car," said Joe Shea, who organized the expo Saturday, Sunday and today at the Manatee Technical Institute. "It will restore the freedom you lost when gas went up to $4 a gallon."
At the most basic level, hydrogen fuel enthusiasts talk of using items found under the kitchen sink — a glass jar, distilled water and baking soda — to make a gadget they say improves gas mileage by 30 percent or more.
At the same time, a growing cadre of entrepreneurs is using more sophisticated materials and designs in their hydrogen fuel, or HHO, generators.
"Today, kits are far smaller, far more productive and in some cases less expensive," said Shea, 62, of Bradenton.
HHO advocates use a process known as electrolysis to run an electric current through water and break apart its molecules.
Hydrogen and oxygen bubble up from the water and are fed into the engine. There, advocates say, they produce a leaner, cleaner and more efficient fuel combustion.
But the leaner fuel mix can fool modern automotive computers into injecting more fuel into the engine.
To get around that, many HHO advocates install electronic devices that allow drivers to adjust the fuel injection themselves. Others reprogram their cars' computers.
Over the weekend, inventors from all over the country showed off hydrogen production kits in cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles, heavy commercial trucks, a dune buggy, and even a lawn mower.
James Edwards of Lakeland let a friend install an HHO generator on his Century Freightliner semitrailer truck at the expo. Depending on what it's hauling, the truck gets 6 to 11 miles to the gallon.
"If I can get 2 more miles to the gallon out of it on a 150,000-gallon year, that's a big difference," Edwards said.
But skeptics abound, saying HHO technology is risky, ineffective and unproven.
"It is inconceivable to me that this gains you any miles per gallon," said Joseph Romm, who helped manage a program to develop clean energy technologies, including hydrogen, at the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton.
It's impossible to get more energy out of hydrogen than you use to create it, critics say.
Because engines are not perfectly efficient, skeptics say, they use more power to run the alternator to create the electricity to make the hydrogen than the hydrogen yields when it burns in the engine.
HHO advocates respond that the hydrogen and oxygen improve efficiency by creating a faster and more complete combustion of the fuel.
Skeptics also say there's the possibility of damaging the engine or jeopardizing the vehicle's warranty.
"You muck around with your engine at your peril," said John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Installing something that changes the way an engine runs is something Heywood said he might do in the lab, "but I'm not relying on that to get me home."
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A lot of HHO commerce takes place online or in settings like the expo or at flea markets.
In January, however, Barry Holzsweig opened what Shea says may be the first brick-and-mortar stores anywhere devoted to selling hydrogen fuel generators.
Holzsweig has his generator, called the Fuel Genie, made in Pinellas Park. He sells them for $499 installed at YourWater2Gas on U.S. 19 in Clearwater. He says his lawyer assures him they do not void a vehicle's warranty.
He envisions garages installing them coast to coast. First, the garages must pay $5,000 for an exclusive 2-mile zone and training for their mechanics.
If hydrogen fuel comes across as a technology with some eyebrow-raising angles to it, then Holzsweig, 59, may be an apt spokesman.
Born in Norfolk, Va., he said he attended what was then Old Dominion College part time, studying electronics and music, before being drafted into the Army in 1969.
After his discharge, he said he kicked around in Europe, working on electronics, taking technical courses in Hamburg, Germany, and Marseilles, France — and selling drugs.
Holzsweig said he started selling hashish in the 1970s while living in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where it was legal. He could buy a kilo of hash for $400 and sell it for $8,000.
"I was doing it big-time," he said. He recalled the life: "Girls. Drugs. Booze. Aaah!"
In Germany, he said, he was arrested in 1976 and served a two-year sentence.
In 1980, he returned to the United States and worked for several companies as a building engineer. He got into acting and quit his job to become an independent TV producer. In Maryland, he produced award-winning shows called The Music Shop and Diana, Mike and the Rabbi.
Then he got sick, he said, with Crohn's disease. He couldn't work and medical bills piled up. Facing more than $20,000 in debt, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1995 in Maryland.
That same year, he said, he moved to Pinellas County, where he got involved in real estate and bought some rental properties. He wrote and recorded a jaunty team song to offer to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Thanks, but no thanks, the Bucs said.)
About a year ago, an acquaintance showed him a flier about HHO. With his background in electronics and mechanical systems — though no college degree — he thought, this might work.
It does, says customer Laura Hoskinson of Clearwater. She said her Honda CR-V went from getting 22 to 25 miles per gallon to 47 with the Fuel Genie.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "Because I'm an insurance agent, I drive all over the place."
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Paul Williamson said he gets about a dozen calls a year from people interested in HHO.
That makes sense. He's the director of the Hydrogen and Alternative Energy Research and Development program at the University of Montana.
First he warns them of the potential problems, including engine corrosion.
Then he encourages them.
"The breakthroughs are not going to come from the General Motors of the world," he said.
Williamson even bought a hydrogen generator for his Chevy Blazer. His gas mileage seemed to improve about 10 percent, but he didn't measure it scientifically.
After six months, he took out the hydrogen generator and traded the Blazer for a Toyota Prius. He said he plans to install the gadget on that, too.
But only after the warranty expires.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.