26 October, 2021

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Polipto

By Upatissa  Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Friends have wondered about my uncharacteristic interest in the claim made as far back as February 10/ 2009 (yes, eleven and more long years ago), that waste plastics, principally low gauge shopping bags (sili sili bags) could be economically converted to a diesel-type product. It is useful to record portions of what now seem like a tissue of untruths.

The spectacular claims (on record) included:-

1. This was a World first, involving a unique “catalyst” discovered locally.

2. The discoverer was not a formal chemist but a self-inspired retired Police Officer.

3. The process was chemico-industrially endorsed by the Academics of Moratuwa University.

4. The Ministry of Environment and the Central Environmental Authority, assumed sponsorship.

5. A commercial entity “Polipto” was established with 60% capital from the State, 30 % from CEA and 10% from Moratuwa University.

6. Some Rs 6 million was proposed as initial expenses, later supplemented by Rs 25 million more from the Treasury.

Meanwhile, the process was claimed to be energy-productive, the yield was 800 ml diesel-like fuel per 1.0 kg of polythene. The fuel was of combustible quality, such that it was claimed that the “Inventor the ran his (unmodified) car on the raw fuel with no ill effects! Shades “Dhammika Peni?” The secret “catalyst” is safely stored in the Vice-Chancellor’s custody at Moratuwa University. (It is regrettably not on record that it has been recently tested for efficacy). One prays that it is still active – otherwise all else will be lost. Meanwhile, a Production Unit has been set up and said to be in operation at Yatiyantota. The Inventor was hired as a well-paid Consultant. It is rumoured (Never revealed for some obscure reason) to have cost (some) Rs 70 million.

It is the performance of this unit that has found recent mention in Parliament. Interestingly, as far back as April 2010, just prior to some Election, Mr Champika Ranawaka (Minister of Environment at that time?) was actually pictured in the newspapers, feeding “Polipto” Diesel into Three-wheelers (free) from a commercial petrol pump! The Chirman, could he too have been as deceived then, as all of us certainly were? 

When this claim for indigenous Science first reached the Press, I had to be cautiously exhilarated. Cautiously, because I was aware that intense research interest has been drawn to similar procedures elsewhere because of their obvious and spectacular value. Our process was special because it promised a positive energy (and therefore commercial) value – which no other process had. On the basis of my rudimentary Chemistry, the claim seemed to be in conflict with the very fundamental, Law of the Conservation of Energy, that I had learned to appreciate. Here is an energy expending process converting hydrocarbon (Crude oil?) to plastic and this being reversed to hydrocarbon with a net gain of Energy. Can’t be, it seemed to my simple mind!  No colleague has yet been able to relieve my mind of this doubt. The age of Alchemy, which hoped to transform base elements to Gold is long gone. 

“Polymerization” is one of the most versatile, useful and spectacular chemical phenomena in nature. Plastics (Polymers) provide great innovativeness and complexity of chemical designing talent. The variety that Industrial Chemical ingenuity has brought into our life through polymers, is staggering. Correspondingly, handling of a variety of compositions, are structures and configurations has to be complex. Hence there is a need for great and appropriate humility when claims for chemical reversal made. To understand one’s limitations is not an inferiority complex. To believe that such a tangled chemical web can be unraveled by something akin to a “kema” has to look like wishful hope! 

The local claims were wildly extravagant. They envisaged a diesel-like distillate which could be directly combusted in existing motor engines and yielding a national saving of Two Thousand Million Rupees (Rs 2,000,000,000/=) each year. It would have been kind to dismiss this as the occasional Hogwash/Bullshit. But, let it be remembered that this was implicitly endorsed by the University of Moratuwa and the Central Environmental Authority. Will they even now have the dignity and stature to admit to a serious error of judgment? Or, would they prefer it to be more honestly recorded as deceit or fraud?

That Industrial Chemists, equipped with respectable University qualifications, could be so naïve is astonishing. The reputation of an esteemed University has been sullied. Enormous expenditure (as yet obstinately undisclosed) has been incurred, an industrial (Pilot) Plant of unrevealed utility has been established at Yatiyantota – ancillary commitments are unknown.

Meanwhile, an interesting question has been asked by Mr Gammanpila regarding “Polipto” and answered by Mr Weerakkody, Minister of Petroleum in Parliament on 18 May, 2016 (Hansard, p154 – 156). For his response, the Minister has been poorly briefed – with an answer designed to confuse, conceal and obscure. UG, at the time of the happenings (which he now innocently questions!), was both Chairman of CEA (sponsors) and “Polipto” (Executers). The grand full page pretext of (very appropriately 1 April) 2010 showing Minister Ranawaka pumping “Polipto” diesel  into three-wheelers was most probably orchestrated by UG or his acolytes themselves! Only the public was deceived. Curiously, the questioner MP was Chairman of CEA at the time. His interest this matter is natural and commendable.

The pretext now of the product being “Furnace Fuel” is fraudulent. This conflicts with the earlier claim was that the distillate had run the inventor’s car successfully without need for any modification. This scoffs at the need for petroleum companies to engage in expensive, sophisticated research to design additives to enhance the performance of traditionally produced auto- fuel. In fact it insults them! So, “Polipto diesel” has now become furnace fuel – could it eventually go full cycle and end up as molten plastic? No surprise if it does!

To focus on just one point of CW’s answer in Parliament:- the plant is said to produce 800 Litres  daily, which will increase to 2,000 Litres in a few weeks. With all this, it is only now that negotiations are being held on sale arrangements with the Ceylon Electricity Board! Will the Private Sector ever venture into a production process like that? 

An earlier assertion was that 1 kg of shopping bags yields 800 ml of fuel (itself a dubious claim). If so, 2,500kg (2.5 tons) of “bags equivalent” is needed daily to yield 1,000 Litres. Can one visualize this bulk of bags and imagine its daily collection from the vicinity of Yatiyantota? Indeed, how does this quantity match up with the total annual production of polythene bags in the whole country? There is no evidence of systematic collection anywhere!

What of the daily collection costs? These and other realities cannot be airily dismissed. Energy costs at plant? Labour? Containers? Transport? Other consumables? And finally, product cost per litre? Remember that we were earlier promised “Polipto Petrol” at Rs75/= to 80/= Per Litre!

I have tried very hard to extract relevant cost data. I have encountered only stubborn silence, obstruction and where possible insult! It is only right that I now name names, distasteful though I find it.

Both Champika Ranawaka and Tissa Vitarana have been given ample opportunity to provide details but have haughtily disdained. Wimaladharma Abeywickrema and his side-kick Roshan Gunawardene have dodged, insulted and been untruthful. Udaya Gammanpila has been duplicitous and Charitha Herath have all ignored legitimate requests for cost data. It is a pity that such an important scientific claim has only led to concealment. However, the greatest guilt in my book, has to pass to the University of Moratuwa staff who have sold their scientific integrity, and forsaken the reputation of their Institution – for what I do not know. They at least have exploited the non-sophistication of the purported inventor, Mr. Withanage. 

If the rest of the Scientific World had taken our claim seriously, there would be plentiful egg on sevral faces.

Even now, if my doubts and reservations are proven to be wrong I shall be grateful to be shown so. But the strongest proof would be the demonstration that waste polythene can be economically converted to a fuel combustible in an internal combustion engine. Then, all concerned will have my humble, sincere, abject and unqualified apology. Alternatively, let us be told candidly, that we were taken for a ride that stopped short of its destination. And, if possible – “WE ARE SORRY AND PROMISE NOT TO DO THIS AGAIN”. What, one wonders would be the fate of “Polipto”? If humble enough to accept a suggestion, by all means eliminate discarded polythene from the environment, melt and remold it into utility items where aesthetic excellence is not over-important. There will be a market.

Since I composed this essay, I chanced on a TV documentary which featured an enterprise for recycling empty water bottles (PET) into household brush-ware (brooms, brushes etc). This was commendable, organized use of a waste product – the way to go. 

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Latest comments

  • 6
    0

    At the time, Gammanpila and Ranawaka were accomplices in this fraud, being JHU hot-shots. Since they have since fallen out, Udaya finds Polipto useful as a weapon against Champika. Both are racist opportunists, of course.
    As the author says, the whole scheme runs against the law of conservation of energy. But this is nothing in a country where science “professors” publicly claim divine inspiration and are not sacked.

    • 3
      0

      Claims of new ‘catalysts’ must be viewed with great caution.

      Hello Old codger, your mention of professors seeking divine inspiration reminds me of one old photo on the Daily News front page showing Professor of Mathematics (Mailvaganam?) at Peradeniya uni guarding the entrance to a Kovil in Jaffna holding a club to block low cast people entering. So much for the discipline of Mathematics.
      We have one Dr. Nalin de Silva , a great Rajapaksa admirer, who gets his inspirations to save Sri Lanka from god ‘Naatha’.

      Soma

      • 3
        0

        S
        The culprit was C Suntharalingam, former Professor of Mathematics at University College Colombo and later MP fir Vavuniya between 1947 and 1960.
        AW Mailvaganam was Professor of Physics, who was in Colombo since University of Ceylon days.
        *
        Nalin was among the co-founders member of the Navasamasamaja Party, which included seven PhDs. The NSSP withered fast losing one PhD after another, then eventually Vasu (no PhD) leaving VB Karunarane alone.
        Nalin was known to have defended the LTTE to an academic colleague whom he accused of being a Sinhala chauvinist. But that was decades ago.

        • 1
          0

          SJ
          O ya, it is Sundaralingam.
          Thanks.
          Is Nalin a professor of Physics?
          The guy is fighting a constant battle against ‘ Western Science’ in Sinhala media which he says is a “boruwak”

          Soma


          Soma

    • 3
      0

      OC
      A Professor of Physics at Peradeniya, an active Evangelist, once claimed that he took his car out to travel long distances in the service of the Lord and when he returned, the car had a full tank of petrol. He retired in the 1990s I think.
      *
      God has always rewarded the faithful.
      Who are mere mortals to punish them?

      • 4
        0

        S.J,
        I have the impression , judging from the distribution of petroleum resources, that God is not much in favour of Evangelicals.

        • 4
          0

          OC,
          But God had arranged for them to receive loads of money from the sale of petroleum.
          As they say, He works in mysterious ways.

      • 2
        0

        SJ,

        Was it Prof Appapillai?.

        He was the Professor of Physics at Peradeniya While Professor AW Mylvaganam was the Professor of Physics at Colombo.

        But I do not know whether Professor Appapillai was an evangelist or not.

        Nalin de Silva was a young lecturer at that time .

        He was a member of LSSP-R.He was very popular among the students; he was a hero to all of us;and we enthusiastically join him in ridiculing NM and others in the LSSP for betraying Marxism, particularly on parity of status.
        None of us could have even imagined in our wildest dreams that Nalin will one day become what he is today.

        • 2
          2

          I did not name the person because I did not want to.
          So, leave it at that

          • 1
            0

            You’re quite right, SJ. I think I know it was GD, but it is not necessary for every little detail to be spelt out when recounting an anecdote.
            .
            I’ve put that in feeling it most unlikely that anybody would work it out.
            .
            However, I do wish that somebody exposes all these absolute frauds who confuse the thinking of people. Evangelists don’t matter too much, because we are on our guard against their excesses.

  • 4
    0

    Dr.Upatissa Pethiyagoda
    I remember, long long time back when the local press was going gaga about a village inventor who had designed a car engine running on water famous Arthur C Clerk who was residing in the country at the time said:
    Please don’t give this kind of publicity IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE EDUCATION.
    My heart sinks when I think of our education system which equips only a smaller percentage with science education. Having said that involvement of Moratuwa University in your episode is certainly beyond belief – now whom I have to feel sorry for?
    .
    No wonder we are still in the bullock cart age.

    Soma

    • 1
      0

      S,
      I wrote to the CDN (in 1975?) promptly explaining that the claim was invalid, and that the ‘inventor’ probably generated hydrogen by electrolysis. I was not hard on him, but criticized those who sang a chorus of praise.
      I received strong attack calling me a half-baked academic etc. I chose to wait. Arthur Clarke wrote weeks later, and the enthusiasts went silent.
      *
      I also earned the wrath of a big name in engineering who proposed that a net gain in electric power was possible by pumping water into a reservoir and using it to run a generator during demand. (This is beneficial in contexts like nuclear power where power output is large and cannot deal with large diurnal fluctuation in demand.)
      In response, I narrated the “Cat and Mouse Farm” story where one creates a market for cat fur and breeds cats for fur and mice to feed the cats. Mice feed on the skinned carcasses of the cats. So we have a ‘perpetual motion machine’.
      The ‘transgression’ was never forgiven.
      *
      In the 1980s claim was made that placing some kind of metal ring around the inlet manifold improved the efficiency of petrol engines. Studies used fuel containers of unequal capacity to demonstrate performance. Science took a while to overcome reputation.

      • 3
        0

        SJ
        I have noticed that a substantial section of those received ‘science education’ have not developed ‘scientific thinking’.

        Soma

        • 3
          0

          Soma,
          Schooling is not the same thing as education.

        • 3
          0

          S
          What many learn as science is a collection of scientific facts.
          Many scientific professionals merely learn routine techniques to solve problems.
          A non-science person can be very scientific in thinking.

      • 2
        1

        I remember this Cat and Mouse Farm story was much appreciated as a brilliant retort.

  • 1
    0

    We’ve been talking about recycling for a long time, and we’re supposed to be making a start again this month. ‘old codger’ has homed in on the point that the most fundamental concepts like the Law of the Conservation of Energy had been disregarded in the case of Polipto.
    .
    I’m adding my two cents’ worth not because I know much about the subject but because this vitally important subject doesn’t appear to be drawing enough attention.
    .
    Our young people are being seduced by wasteful unsustainable life-styles. Materials are supposed to be recyclable, but are not actually recycled:
    .
    https://mashable.com/article/tetra-pak-recycle/
    .
    Dr. Pethiyagoda’s plea for much less highfalutin recycling, together with incentives to re-use glass bottles must be explored.

    • 2
      0

      S_M
      Have you seen Apocalipto by Mel Gibson?
      Ever piling up garbage mountains in combination with frauds like Polipto are sure lead the industrial civilisation to apocalipto.

      Soma

      • 0
        0

        No, somehow seeing films was something my thrifty village parents didn’t often do.
        .
        So, I’ve not formed the “habit”. Of course, this is a much more recent film, but unless I’m directed to something (as you’re doing now) it doesn’t get done.
        .
        I know Mel Gibson, of course! You’ve done something very useful by providing that link, because seeing a well-made film can really drive a message in. That is real education!

        • 2
          0

          S_M
          Apocalipto is a must see.
          Video should be available.

          Soma

          • 0
            0

            Thanks, Soma.

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