Diesel from polythene


Dr. U. Pethiyagoda’s (UP) letter under the above caption (The Island of 9th November) is really fascinating. He describes the discovery by a former member of the Police of a ‘secret catalyst’ by which waste Polythene and items like old tyres could be converted to diesel. The ‘invention’ and its publicity appears to have received the endorsement (recognition?) of the Moratuwa University and the then Minister of Environment Engineer Champika Ranawaka. It was even supposed to result in an annual saving of two billion rupees for the government and rumoured to have received several million rupees for a Pilot project. Whatever the veracity of these assumptions, the fact that nothing was heard of it (the ‘invention’) later makes everything embarrassingly suspicious. UP also refers to a claim by the Agriculture Faculty in Peradeniya that fuel could be produced from straw. Here too there had been absolute silence since.

Dr. Pethiyagoda comments that if these earth-shaking events were true, they would have earned the inventors Nobel Prizes. Also he says they overturn accepted fundamental Laws of Science.

A few similar cases readily come to mind all equally crazy and comic. They may easily be passed for a form of entertainment if not for the expenditure they might have certainly incurred from government funds.

Sometime back there was a claim that a certain villager (like our retired policeman) had designed a rubber tapping knife that could slice the bark so finely that its efficiency was unmatched. There was the usual boast about other rubber growing countries like Malaysia being interested. But nothing worthwhile transpired even by way of further dubious claims.

Similarly a paddy cultivator was supposed to have invented a device to fit a hand tractor that could thresh paddy far more efficiently than with the plain tractor or buffaloes. Here too nothing was heard of since; seem to have died at birth.

A safe kerosene-bottle-lamp invention was celebrated in a big way recently. In fact, the inventor (an Academic, I believe) was awarded a prize for it at a formal ceremony. There were even a few claims about the demand for them, the thousands already sold and the drop in burn injuries since its popular use!

These claims could be excused considering the people involved. They might have genuinely believed in their over enthusiasm that they have indeed discovered something novel and innocently joined the publicity show, but there had been instances where academics, who should know better, have been taken for (or, willingly gone on?) a ride.

Once a stretch of ground at Fox Hill in Diyatalawa was found to emit fire. Talk was in the air that it was some volcanic activity. A team of ‘Scientists’ either from the P’deniya or Colombo University immediately proceeded to the area with all equipment and instruments for study and, of course, research! However, their enthusiasm was promptly deflated by a Britisher holidaying here. He explained that it was some pear bed on fire; a very common phenomenon in his country. (Peat is decomposed timber and the initial stage of coal). The matter was totally forgotten may be because it did not hold out any huge economic gain for the country; like the diesel from polythene or fuel from straw or, should we add, oil from the seas off Mannar!

Finally, again there was the case of a Russian Space Satellite become rouge (rendered non-responsible to ground control). The Russian authorities gave a world-wide warning and also informed that it would enter the Earth’s atmosphere in about 4 or 5 days’time but the location of the crash-landing was not certain. In a day or two something crashed in a coconut plantation in Mawatagama near Kurunegala and the entire ‘Science Fraternity’ got energized! Instead of clarifying things they (from the Peradeniya University, I think) proceeded to the area to study the pre-conceived fallen part of the Satellite only to find it was a meteorite! Even the Heavens seem to have decided to frolic with them judging by the time coincidence. Worse still, this drama was enacted after being told by the Russian Embassy and Arthur C. Clarke that there was still time.

All this is reminiscent of the Poem we read at school about six or seven decades ago: ‘… blind men of Hindustan who once went to see an Elephant’. And, in this case the expense incurred seems justified by the entertainment provided, aptly at the expense of the Academic.

M. S. Abdeen,


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