I have always been fascinated with the different means available to power combustion engines. The following are a few extracts from stories dating back a few decades. The idea of water and calcium carbide producing acetylene to power an engine may not be economical, but may have a place as a hybrid in remote locations.
The following is a small sample of the information out there on the internet.
Part 1: History
An excellent source of the history of acetylene engines is from the Museum of Power website
This is an Extract from the site:
J K Rush, who wrote this rather vacuous article some time around 1905. He claims that acetylene was currently being used in engines:
“ACETYLENE GAS ENGINES”
“Until recently it has not been practical to use acetylene for gas engines, owing to the fact that but very few acetylene generators generate acetylene at a temperature low enough to obtain a purity of gas or quantity sufficient to bring about the practical use of acetylene in an engine, but there are some generators producing acetylene of a sufficiently low degree of temperature to bring about a purity of quality and increase of volume of acetylene to such an extent that cooking and heating with acetylene has not only been made practical and profitable to many who are now using acetylene, but its use is now applied very practically to engines, which have been formerly used with gas and gasoline.
“Of course, engines used for this purpose are especially constructed, owing to the fact that a much smaller quantity of acetylene is required, when properly mixed with oxygen, to bring about good results in an engine than is used when coal gas is applied. A engine of this kind may be applied for running various kinds of machinery for factory purposes and the generator used for furnishing acetylene for heat, light and power. The heat may be used in the laboratory, the light for illuminating the entire premises, acetylene as applied to the engine, power for the entire institution – all supplied from one source. Te advent of the acetylene engine in the field of active industry will be a great boon to the trade generally, inasmuch as in many places acetylene generators will be purchased strictly for the sake of obtaining the gas for power purposes.
“A country home or estate may now be fitted out with an acetylene plant, whereby the lighting of the buildings, as well as the grounds, is supplied from the machine, acetylene for heating and cooking purposes in the culinary department and hot water heating appliances in the bath room. The acetylene engine can be used for the purpose of forcing water through pipes in the most modern manner possible to conceive of, thus supplying the suburbanite with all the luxuries of city life so far as these particular items are concerned.
“It is very interesting indeed to know the various uses to which acetylene is being applied. There is hardly a day at the present time but what some new application is made of this valuable combination of carbon and hydrogen. e see it in use on all up-to-date automobiles, launches, bicycles and many other similar uses, where the very brightest and best results are desired by way of illumination. ow, since the acetylene engine has come into the field, it would not be at all surprising to see within the next year at the automobile show, an automobile propelled as well as illuminated with acetylene.”
THE ACETYLENE ENGINE OF GUSTAVE WHITEHEAD: 1901
The aviation claims of Gustave Whitehead have always been controversial. He designed and built gliders, flying machines and engines from 1897 to 1915, but his claim to have flown a powered machine successfully several times in 1901 and 1902, (before the first Wright Brothers flights in 1903) are not generally believed.
However he unquestionably had a interest in engines of high power/weight ratio, Whitehead’s Number 21 monoplane of 1901 had two engines: a ground engine of 10 hp (7.5 kW), intended to turn the front wheels and accelerate the aircraft to takeoff speed, and a 20 hp (15 kW) acetylene engine powering two contra-rotating propellers. Number 21 had a wingspan of 36 ft, (11 m) and fabric-covered wings were ribbed with bamboo, and braced by steel wires. The acetylene engine cannot have been very successful because Number 22 had a five-cylinder 40 hp kerosene engine.
Samuel Langley was the builder of the unsuccessful Aerodrome. His chief engineer, Charles Manly, was interested in Whitehead’s Number 21 aircraft, on public display in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1901. Manly said that what he was “more interested in than anything else” was the acetylene engine. Manly dismissed Whitehead’s claims of flight.
Whitehead remains a controversial figure to this day, with a following of enthusiasts who believe he flew first. I have exploited this to gain a few more crumbs of information on his alleged acetylene engine. Atgustave-whitehead.com they are concerned to show that Whitehead’s acetylene engine was not an impossibility, and claim:
“In 1898, three years before Whitehead flew, Franz Liebertanz, General Secretary of the Calcium Carbide and Acetylene Gas Association in D�sseldorf, published a list of three known acetylene motors, one of them in America, in his 274-page book Calciumcarbid und Acetylen: ihr wesen, ihre Darstellung und Anwendung, pub Leipzig, 1898. The title means “Calcium carbide and acetylene: Their nature, their representation and application.” This book is known to Google but there seems to be no way to view it without paying a ridiculous amount of money.
On 11th November 1899, Scientific American published a report about “The Auto Acetylene Company of New York”. Its engines could be adapted for use with either acetylene, gasoline or kerosene:
“The motor consists of a duplex engine having four cylinders and two exploding chambers. There is a valve provided which permits changing from acetylene gas to gasoline and from gasoline to kerosene oil, so that while the engine is operated most economically and satisfactorily with acetylene, at the same time other fuels can be used in an emergency, if supplies of carbide are not readily obtained.”
Technical drawings of an acetylene motor in a road vehicle were published in 1899 in Dingler’s Polytechnisches Journal, Vol. 7, pp. 111-112.
THE SWISS ACETYLENE ENGINES: 1942
This satisfyingly complicated diagram of an acetylene engine was published in Newnes Practical Mechanics for February 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, as part of an article titled “The Properties of Acetylene-Gas Fuel”. The accompanying text however only refers occasionally to the diagram and almost all of it consisted of a recitation of the well-known properties of acetylene, which could have been copied from any 30-year-old textbook. (such as that by Leeds and Atkinson, mentioned just above) Combining that with the fact that technical magazines like Practical Mechanics would had to have been very cautious about what they published in war-time, I began to suspect that the article might have been deliberately designed to mislead the enemy, and induce him to put resources into investigating an explosively impractical idea. But read on…
Above: Swiss acetylene-fuelled engine system: 1942. Note the source of the diagram is “G. M. Carbor”.
Research showed that the “G.M. Carbor” really was an acetylene generator built by General Motors Suisse S A of Bienne, with work beginning in November 1939, when it became clear that petrol was going to be in very short supply. Acetylene is made in an electric arc furnace by heating a mixture of lime and coke to 2000 �C, which requires a lot of electricity (presumably from hydro-electric plants in this case) but no input of hydrocarbons. By May 1941 about 4000 licences for the conversion of vehicles to alternate fuels had been issued, and more than half of them were for conversion to acetylene. Rapid depletion of the Swiss sheet metal and tyre reserves brought this activity to a close in mid-1942. That is all I found initially, but it did seem to indicate that the diagram was not a spoof but is worth a look. Let’s see what we can do with it.
The acetylene is generated in tank 40, by the usual method of dropping water on calcium carbide. 22 is the water tank. 13 is a reservoir for the acetylene as gas generation can only be started and stopped slowly; the acetylene was dissolved in acetone absorbed in charcoal. The acetylene goes through pressure-reduction valves 1, 2 and into the gas/air mixer 7, which is also fed with alcohol from tank 16. The mixture is then used in engine 12, presumably with some alterations in ignition timing.
Steam is generated when acetylene is produced from carbide, and this was condensed in 35, then returned to the water system via vessel 33.
The actual fuel was therefore an acetylene-alcohol mixture, and the text states that without the alcohol the acetylene-air mixture was very weak, (to avoid detonation) and so gave little power. The acetylene/alcohol ratio is not given, but one suspects that a lot of alcohol was needed. It was also mentioned that 3 parts of alcohol to 1 part of water could be used instead of pure alcohol. Note that an acetylene/alcohol mixture was used by Barker & White in 1907, as described above.
Part 2: Car Engine Application
The following story was found at:
My Car Uses an Acetylene Engine
The author discusses his ongoing efforts to convert an old car to an acetylene engine. By Leland Barber March/April 1980
With all the brouhaha about the price of gasoline these days — and the very real concern over its availability through the coming years — it seems senseless to waste time “beating a dead horse” when there are fuel alternatives just waiting to be uncovered or improved upon.
One such substitute, ethyl alcohol, has been used before and is now being “rediscovered.” Another, hydrogen, is also quite feasible and is presently the object of several research programs being carried out by private industry.
But I’m convinced that I’ve come up with my own answer to the petroleum “pickle” we’re presently in . . . and, since I’m a welder by trade, the solution has literally been at my fingertips for nearly 30 years: acetylene gas!
Of course, the details of my unique system weren’t worked out overnight. In fact, the acetylene fuel project has taken over 1,000 hours of my spare time and set me back nearly $1,000 … and I still haven’t worked out all the bugs. I’ve come a long way since 1974 — when I first conceived the idea — though, and I’ve covered a lot of ground in just the past few months.
Now before I’m dismissed as some kind of cashew, I’d better explain a thing or two about acetylene. Basically, the gas is produced on a small scale by mixing calcium carbide — which is a product of limestone, coal, and heat — with water. The resulting vapor is, of course, highly flammable and has been used for illumination as well as welding. Actually, at the peak of the “acetylene age,” gas-fired lamps were used to provide lighting for factories, schools, thoroughfares, and even private homes . . . and calcium carbide generators were a common sight. Even today, remote areas, such as mine shafts and marine shipping lanes, often utilize acetylene-powered torches in lieu of electric bulbs.
Naturally, any flammable gas is potentially dangerous, and acetylene is certainly no exception. But the violent nature that’s been attributed to “welder’s ether” has come about as a result of that substance’s being compressed for convenient storage and transport. When the gas is merely allowed to form in a regulated fashion — and is then immediately drawn off for a specific use — it’s not nearly as touchy as when under pressure .. . and the fact that acetylene generators were used by regular folks all over America and abroad is proof that the gas can be safe when handled with due caution.
When I started my project, I knew as well as the next guy that open flame lights and internal combustion engines are two different animals . . . but I also knew that many automobiles, trucks, and forklifts have been running on propane or even cooking gas very successfully for quite a few years . . . and that’s what got me thinking. I wasn’t really looking for a “miracle fuel” that would solve all our energy problems overnight . . . I was just trying to come up with a practical substitute that would be economically feasible and could be used as an alternative to gasoline.
After all, although propane is fairly inexpensive (it sells for the equivalent of as little as 55¢ a “gallon” in some areas), it’s still a petroleum derivative, and thus both its market price and its availability could be affected by the state of this nation’s oil supplies in the future. Acetylene, on the other hand, is a product of calcium carbide … and that substance can be manufactured from coal and lime, both of which are abundant right here at home!
These days, though, calcium carbide can be rather difficult to find on the store shelves. And when I finally did locate some at a camping and outdoor supply shop, the $6.00-per-pound price nearly floored me. Fortunately, I soon found that such large markups apply only to small quantities, and that the going commercial price for 100 pounds of the rock-like substance is about $20.
Naturally, my next question was, “How long can a given amount of calcium carbide power a car . . . assuming that the theory even works?” And, of course, the only way to find the answer was to do it . . . the best way I knew how: by the seat of my pants! Luckily, I had an old Chevy sedan that’d been sitting in my yard for a while . . . too good to scrap or sell, but just fine to experiment on (and maybe to blow the cylinder heads off of)!
I started rather crudely in an attempt to get the engine to run without driving the car. After locating a calcium carbide generator — and a good supply of the fuel — in Vermont, I began tinkering with the carburetion system. Figuring that a propane carburetor would work best, since it was designed to use a gaseous rather than a liquid fuel, I welded up a metal duct pipe to serve two purposes:  It provided a mount for the propane (soon to be acetylene) carb that allowed the flammable gas to enter the throat of the original carburetor, and  it furnished a convenient dual-fuel capability . . . because I had fabricated an air inlet valve on its upper surface that could be opened when the car was burning gasoline and the acetylene system was shut down.
Then, after I had connected a length of single-strand acetylene hose from the stationary gas generator to the propane carburetor and made a few “guesstimated” adjustments to the latter piece of equipment, I filled my miniature acetylene “factory” with the proper amounts of water and calcium carbide (according to the manufacturer’s recommendations) and opened the control valve slightly. As I fully expected, a hissing sound indicated that gas was being produced . . . and the moment of truth was upon me. When I turned the ignition key, the engine came to life . . . my system worked!
My next step was to try to fabricate a calcium carbide generator that would fit in the trunk of my vehicle . .. and, even more important, a unit that was safe enough to use on a regular transportation basis. An automobile can be forced to perform some pretty wild maneuvers in traffic, and I had to be sure that there was no danger of excess gas being produced because of water inadvertently splashing on my supply of fuel pebbles. After several months of work, I’ve recently come up with a generating unit that works perfectly . . . so well, in fact, that I’m conducting a patent search on its design.
But even with a portable gas generator installed, I have some more tinkering to do with the fuel delivery system. My goal is to provide good engine control up to speed, but at the same time balance the air/fuel ratio to prevent a rich — and hence — wasteful mixture. Recently I have been working with some new components and designs that make the system safer and ultimately more practical . . . including an improved metering device of my own design and an anti-backfire valve that virtually prevents accidental (and disastrous) flashbacks from reaching the calcium carbide generator.
In short, although I don’t have all the answers yet, I’ve come a long way in a few months and I feel downright pleased at this point. Not only have I demonstrated the car to the local press and run up some miles on it, but I’ve gathered some preliminary economy figures to indicate that — at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, at least — I can expect far better mileage from each dollar’s worth of calcium carbide fuel than I can from the equivalent amount of gasoline . .. and these days, that’s saying something.
Anyone trying to duplicate his success had best be warned that unless he or she understands the principles of acetylene thoroughly, real danger does exist.
Part 3: Acetylene Production
Acetylene (useful for oxy-acetylene welding) is produced by reacting Calcium carbide (CaC2) with water.
Calcium carbide is generated by the carbothermic reduction of lime (CaO) at 2000C. Lime can be produced by reducing limestone (calcium carbonate) in a furnace at 900C-1000C. Once lime has been produced however, one does not need to continue to harvest more limestone to keep making acetylene. The reaction of calcium carbide with water produces acetylene and calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2). The hydroxide dissociates back into water and lime at 512C.
Carbon however, which is burned as acetylene, must be continually provided. Only the calcium is preserved.thus the closed loop is:
Calcium hydroxide + 512C -> Calcium oxide (lime) + water
Calcium oxide + Carbon + 2000C -> Calcium carbide + Carbon Monoxide
Calcium carbide + water (room temp) -> Acetylene + calcium hydroxide.
Carbon may be provided from biomass (ie: charcoal). It would be useful to know what effect the presence of hydrogen has on the reaction in order to determine if wood gas, bio gas, and other easily attainable simple organic molecules could be used in place of pure carbon.
Part 4: Potential Danger?
This video from Australia shows what people do in their spare time in the outback. It also illustrates the the potential danger of Acetylene experiments. I have little or no other information on its authenticity, or if acetylene was involved, but its a fun video. Be warned as some bad language is used.
To see the complete car click: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48FOXf…
The fuel system was not fully functioning yet so the engine was started using acetylene. That did not go so well : The engine was a Honda D16b (1600cc, inline 4) from a Honda Civic.
Part 5: Recent Video’s
The following is a video demonstration of a Honda Generator (engine) operating AFuels Technologies, LLC’s patented acetylene engine. AFuels’ research has developed a technology that combines a dual-fuel mixture of acetylene and alcohol to burn in air via a safe and controllable process.
This Otto & Langgen 1867 model engine was built in 2008 and is shown running on acetylene.
I am interested to hear any stories from our readers. I remember when I was a kid in Adelaide Australia seeing Tv coverage of a local man converting his vehicle to run or be supplemented with Acetylene from limestone. That was a few decades ago.