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Villager Claims He Can Make Cheap Gas From Herbal Brew

September 19, 1996

MADRAS, India (AP) _ A high-school dropout from a remote Indian village says he can make cheap car fuel by boiling a tea-like leaf in water. His claim has baffled scientists, excited investors and brought the inventor death threats from people trying to steal his formula.

At a demonstration this week, Ramar Pillai asked an official to toss a handful of the leaves into a pail of boiling water. He added a little lemon juice and salt, a few drops of gasoline and a test tube of undisclosed chemicals that apparently act as a catalyst.

Within minutes, the brew separated into layers, with a yellowish liquid rising to the top. Pillai poured the liquid into a reporter’s motorbike. The reporter said the ride was smooth.

Scientists say until they learn the formula and subject the fuel to tests there is no way of knowing whether it is as promising as Pillai makes it out to be. Pillai won’t say what kind of leaf he uses or what chemicals he adds.

``I’m very skeptical, but it would be marvelous if it was true,″ said David Hildebrand, professor of agronomy at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

He said other plant-derived fuels _ like ethanol, which is produced from corn _ have proven to be more expensive to make than gasoline.

Pillai says the fuel would cost only 23 cents a gallon to make and burns with minimal toxic emissions _ and that the leaves can be farmed as easily as tea. Hildebrand was skeptical of the cost. ``Maybe he’s considering that the material would be produced for essentially nothing,″ he said.

Pillai, 34, says he stumbled upon the plant 18 years ago during a high-school picnic in the forests near his village of Idayankulam, 300 miles south of Madras and 1,200 miles south of New Delhi on India’s southern tip.

Leaves of a plant burst into flames when sparks from a camp stove ignited them, he says.

Pillai dropped out of school to work gathering firewood from the forests. He searched for the plant that burned, but it took him 10 years to find it.

When he finally did, he began developing formulas, but scientists and government officials refused to take him seriously, he said. For the past two years, he has been producing 13 gallons a day and selling it to farmers in his village for use in their tractors.

Finally, the government of Tamil Nadu state gave him permission to market his cocktail, and he began to demonstrate it in laboratories, including the most prestigious in India.

Scientists were skeptical, but said that if there was a trick involved, they couldn’t spot it.

Two weeks ago, a few reporters were invited to a demonstration at the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi, and Pillai became an overnight sensation.

It also brought out more sinister interests. Pillai says he was kidnapped for several days, suspended from a ceiling fan and burned with cigarettes in an attempt to get him to disclose his secret. He didn’t.

Last week, when arsonists set a fire near his home, the government ordered protection. Five policemen now guard his home while authorities process a patent application.

Pillai disclosed his formula to a handful of scientists at the government’s Department of Science and Technology. They are testing it, but are keeping the formula secret until the patent is registered.

Other scientists remain skeptical _ but interested.

``The whole thing is bizarre,″ said S. Subramanian, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Madras. ``It goes against all the laws of thermodynamics.″

``I would like to believe it,″ he said. ``If it is true, It could transform the country. Fuel will be cheaper than mineral water.″

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