Nedelko (Nick) Delchev's problem may be that he's the kind of guy who can explain his invention to 1,000 people and 999 will break into a silly grin.
He's not trying to be funny. It may be the curled mustache and the gray-haired barrel chest popping out of the neatly tucked shirt. The truncated English doesn't help. But it's mostly the deadpan candor with which he praises America for affording him the freedom to do what he has done.
Delchev lost patience with the stifling ways of Communist Bulgaria in 1960 and took a run at the Iron Curtain. The 19-year-old auto mechanic raced across the shoot-without-warning zone and smacked into a barbed-wire fence rigged with bells and cans. Luckily it was Lubiemez (population 2,500) and not East Berlin. The guard was changing at the moment and didn't catch on.
Delchev's next bout of willfulness came in 1973. By then, he was an American and thought that he would never have to stand in line again. He took it as a personal affront when the first gas shortage brought nasty queues to his adopted land.
"It was too much like the old country," he said.
He began tinkering with an idea for an alternative fuel. Unlike the many who were out for the quick fix and tired of the endeavor as soon as the crisis subsided, Delchev never gave up.
Now, 17 years later, with a new gas crisis at hand, he thinks that the world may be ready to take a serious look at what he's been doing.
He gives demonstrations at his laboratory in Glendale's industrial district of West Palmer Avenue. He rents space from B. C. Radiator, a hissing, clanking place where the air is thick with the caustic steam that rises from vats of hot liquid. In a corner in the back, behind floor-to-ceiling stacks of crated radiators, Delchev has a lathe, a drill press, a workbench and a desk. Hung on the walls are a chart of the periodic table and half a dozen posters of bare-breasted women.
There, to support inventing, Delchev does machine-shop work. He calls his business the No Problem Co. Whatever a customer asks him to make, he replies: "No problem."
That, too, is the philosophy of his engine, which runs on household products and makes no pollution. The model is an arrangement of steel canisters, tubes, dials and switches jury-rigged on a cart. Its heart is an eight-inch-wide stainless-steel turbine from the starter motor for a jet engine. Delchev bought it from a scrap yard.
This dynamo runs on a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and sugar, with a dab of alcohol. The theory of combustion goes as follows: When sprayed through a nozzle over a catalyst of manganese dioxide, the hydrogen peroxide decomposes into water and oxygen, releasing heat. The oxygen burns the sugar, turning the water into steam, which turns the turbine at 18,000 r.p.m. Burning no air at all, the process releases no oxides of nitrogen.
That much is solid chemistry, said UCLA professor emeritus William Van Vorst, whose specialty is alternative fuels. The question is how to harness the reaction.
That's where Delchev's demonstration comes in. First, he wheels the engine outside, past young men in coveralls who continue their work as if not noticing. He attaches a car battery to an ignition device called a glow plug in a dark iron cylinder where combustion occurs.
He turns a fuel valve. The casing around the turbine hisses and steam puffs out.
"Hydrogen peroxide is decomposing," he says.
He coaxes the valve forward several times, progressing through louder hisses and larger blasts of steam.
When the heat gauge reads 700 degrees, he disconnects the glow plug. The reaction is going on its own.
At 1,000 degrees, the turbine starts and stops. At 1,200, there is a steady, searing scream and the turbine spins steadily.
Delchev opens the valve further. A low hum rises from a gearbox, which is reducing the drive by a 22-to-1 ratio. The hum grows higher and louder. At 1,400 degrees, the turbine is a blur. The howl of the gearbox reaches a head-splitting harmony with the hiss of the steam. An electric motor the size of a basketball is turning at a nifty 800 r.p.m.
Over the noise, Delchev says he's a single man, by necessity. "If I had been married, forget it," he yells. "I would have been divorced several times or beaten with a frying pan."
The engine is Delchev's baby and, he says, it's strong enough to drive a car. His next step is to prove it. He's going to put one in a car and drive it.
Many engineering hurdles lie ahead. Delchev has to develop systems for pumping the fuel and warming up the combustion chamber in less than 15 minutes.
Most important, he's got to stifle the noise.
At this point, he'd like a large company to take over the execution, with a team for each system.
Detroit and the U. S. Department of Defense have both looked at Delchev's device and said, "No, thanks."
But Intertox America, a company that makes hydrogen peroxide, advised him to keep at it and stay in touch.
So the next time you see a car that sounds like a Southern Pacific locomotive, you'll know that inside is a man who is saying "Thank you" to America.
And don't laugh. He has a patent.