25 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, twelve 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 much 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 academic 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 the inventor ran his (unmodified) car on the raw fuel with no ill effects!. The secret “catalyst” is safely stored in the Vice-Chancellor’s safe 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 is operational 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! 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.

 “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, structures and configurations has to be complex. Hence there is a need for great and appropriate humility when claims for chemical reversal are 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 (or Dr?) 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 Ranawake pumping “Polipto” diesel  into three- wheelers was most  probably orchestrated by UG or his acolytes themselves!  Only the public was deceived.

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 Ranawake 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 duplicitious and Charitha Herath has 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 many 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

  • 3
    0

    Many thanks, Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, for an effective exposé.
    .
    Green issues and the hypocrisy that so many display in this area are so widespread that as many as possible should join in reporting what they know. Sri Lanka has become a major polluter of the oceans.
    .
    This is a devillishly complex subject, and seeing your timely article, I thought I’d provide this link that I chanced upon yesterday.
    .
    https://drinkpathwater.com/blogs/news/10-sad-truths-about-cartons-like-tetra-pak%C2%AE-why-they-are-not-a-sustainable-solution-for-bottled-water
    .
    I acknowledge that I’m tired today, but i hope that this comment is relevant. I’ve been avoiding platic packaging and foregoing easy options, until a conscientious but innocent woman who was running a kiosk informed me that “Tetrapak” containers were safer than drinks in the glass botles that I constantly demanded.
    .
    I had vaguely avoided them since I thought of money flowing out of the country.
    .
    What a can of worms these turn out to be. That article itself is written by “concerned Westerners”. It is time we begin to be more aware of what is going on in the name of “going green”.
    .
    Articles of this sort are unfortunately read by too few.

    • 3
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      Dr. P has come out on a subject that I myself have been following over the years. Now, I don’t think I am as qualified as Dr.P, but even my basic training tells me that, for example, if you burn hydrogen to get energy and water, there is no way you can get the hydrogen back without expending even more energy than you got in the first place.
      This basic fact is apparently unknown to charlatans like Champika Ranawana, who prides himself on being some sort of engineer. At the time, I did write a piece for the Daily Mirror , but it wasn’t published because the Editor at the time was Champika’s girlfriend! In any case, I don’t think the clueless local media have the competence to judge the viability of any technology, given that most journalists are Arts graduates at best.

      • 3
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        This is not the only instance where devious politicians used self- described “inventors” to further their own interests. Most of these characters pitch themselves as having “local” technology which can save the country billions, but they request state sponsorship to develop their ideas. Which actually means your money and mine.
        There was one guy who claimed he could run a car on water. This was a patently ridiculous claim, but not a single academic refuted it, probably because the guy had the backing of the PM at the time. He was eventually exposed.
        As Dr.P says, this brings into question the competence of University academics. Are they simply people who can pass exams, answering questions parrot-like, or people who actually understood what they have learnt? We had a Dean of a Science faculty who credited Natha Deviyo for info on kidney disease, and we have a politically influential Professor who believes in “vanda-pethi”.

  • 3
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    Hats off to Dr.P for reminding us the biggest fraud done in the name of science. I totally blame the incompetent academics at the Moratuwa for giving the green light for such a project. They seem to be unaware of the first law of thermodynamics! Have they carried out this process in their laboratories and what is the energy balance. At least now they should admit their follies and apologise to the public. I can remember that a university undergraduate at Sri Jayawardenapura who became famous (I forget his name but something like Priyanjan) for inventing new gadgets once talking about exactly the same process. He applied for a local patent and this policeman probably got the details of the catalyst and the process from the patent office with the help of some corrupt officers.
    In the west too there are lots of stories about developing catalysts for this process but so far none have been commercially successful. Also, as Dr. P rightfully says energy considerations are important. If the process requires a high temperature we spend more on producing this so called diesel than the energy we get out of it.
    The proof of the pudding is on the eating and the government has a duty to get to the bottom of this and tell the country as to how many litres of diesel or furnace oil it has produced with this process.

  • 2
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    I think ‘sensationalism’ is the factor here where publicity seeking individuals are being piggy backed by politicians & media for their own advantage. The endorsements by some academics & learning institutes for this sort of unsubstantiated & even outrageous claims as highlighted by Dr Pethiyagoda is certainly most disturbing. When Ministers promote such dubious claims, such as, the Health Minister promoting a divine ‘medicine’ in public, we can only conclude how backward we are but more importantly, how politicians consider the masses as gullible, unless, they themselves are stupid. If I am not mistaken, there had even been an investigative study of Rawana’s flying machine, which, in my mind, is folklore, not historical.

    cont.

  • 2
    0

    cont.
    In recent years, SL has been portrayed as an automobile manufacturing country with a locally produced plastic bodied city car with Chinese mechanicals, which a friend of mine was keen to buy some years ago to promote local industry. It was even alleged that this car was exported to Malta but I couldn’t find any such evidence & nothing is heard of it now. However, I was intrigued by a U Tube clip of an electric supercar with performance figures that would even shame Tesla, that was being designed & developed locally, assisted by Moratuwa University. This was to be unveiled at the Geneva Motorshow last year but was, apparently, prevented by the cancellation of the show due to the pandemic. The clip even showed a picture of the technical team unfurling the SL flag at the venue. Just wondering if this is also another ambitious but unfeasible project, considering the fact that even Tesla, the pioneering electric supercar manufacturer, is still ironing out gremlins & yet to make a profit.

  • 2
    0

    It is harrowing to see how backward is our society due to lack of widespread science education.

    Soma

    • 0
      0

      Soma,
      Not only science.
      “Schooling is not the same as education”.

    • 0
      0

      Soma,
      .
      I’m glad to see you showing awareness of how much our entire society needs to catch up with developments elsewhere.
      .
      We must focus on other issues than our tribalisms.

      • 0
        0

        You people won’t let.

        Soma

  • 0
    0

    This came as a surprise to me:
    .
    I knew that Jeff Bezos had become the richest man in the world because of Amazon, but most Sri Lankans probably think of Bill Gates as still the richest man of them all.
    .
    I had heard of Tesla cars, but didn’t know the man who’s done it all.
    .
    https://arstechnica.com/cars/2021/01/elon-musk-is-the-worlds-richest-person/
    .
    This set me wondering about where we’re heading:
    .
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_Musk
    .
    I’ve seen quite a few Nissan Leaf all electric cars on our roads, but didn’t realise that so many are manufacturing them:
    .
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_electric_cars_currently_available
    .
    Of course, this also is like the Tetrapaks that I have referred to. Let us not imagine that this magic will save us from all pollution. We’ve got to work out how we produce all the electricity we require.
    .
    Not like the Uma Oya project in my part of the country, please!

    • 1
      0

      Sinhala_Man
      For your information, I am quoting from the ‘Motley Fool’s guide to investment’ web site.
      ”Shares of Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) surged 8% to another all-time high on Thursday, driven in part by a big upgrade by auto analyst Joseph Spak of RBC Capital Markets. The analyst gave two main reasons for this change of heart: Tesla’s ability to raise capital cheaply and increased expectations for growth over the next five years. However, neither justification makes sense. Instead, this looks like another case of an analyst chasing Tesla stock, which has moved far into bubble territory after surging more than 800% over the past year”
      Tesla has produced just under 500,000 vehicles at the end of 2020 & projects a 17% growth annually until 2025. The investment is in billions of $ & Tesla currently employs 48,000 but yet to make a profit. In this light, I am sceptic about SL’s electric vehicle manufacturing capability. Either it is ‘pie in the sky’ or taking SL for a ride, like the VW manufacturing plant, which I understand, never took off. We are proud to assemble SKD vehicles from Korea/China/India (under political patronage) with the ‘built in SL’ tag, which, in my humble opinion, is the best we can do without major participation of a large manufacturer.

  • 1
    0

    The author is worried about the violation of the principle of conservation of energy.
    Sri Lanka is in a parallel universe where the same laws of physics are not applicable.

    Soma

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