A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there a pill that can turn water into gasoline?

December 14, 1984

Dear Cecil:

I am enclosing an inflatable Dino the Sinclair Dinosaur out of gratitude for your putting two of my questions in your recent book. (You mentioned that you "had one" of these as a child and found it "inexplicably charming.") Now I have another question: my step-dad tells me that many years ago there was a fellow who invented a pill that, when put in a tank of water, would turn the water into gasoline. After publicly demonstrating this, he then disappeared forever, his secret formula gone with him. The yarn goes on that the big oil companies felt threatened and were responsible for his demise. A good friend of mine confirms that he read this story in an old Farmer's Almanac. Any truth to this?

Cecil replies:

Thanks for the dinosaur, Mike, as well as the opportunity to work in yet another plug for my books, which are selling like hotcakes, mainly due to my relentless program of self-promotion. As for your question, I believe you're referring to the late Guido Franch, who was the subject of a story some years ago by former Straight Dope editor Mike Lenehan. Over the course of three decades, Guido convinced dozens, maybe hundreds of people that he could turn ordinary water into high-test gasoline (he called it "Mota fuel," Mota being "atom" spelled backwards) by dumping some mysterious green powder into it. The cost? Just eight cents a gallon.

Guido, a blue-collar worker with a seventh-grade education, explained that Mota fuel had been developed by a German scientist named Dr. Alexander Kraft, who had settled in Guido's home town of Livingston in downstate Illinois between the world wars. Guido claimed he learned the formula for the powder, which was made from coal, while working part-time in the doctor's lab. After the doctor died, Guido spent his spare time trying to scrounge up cash to build a pilot plant to make the Mota fuel powder in quantity, but without much success. The problem, Guido claimed, was that the big corporations (supposedly companies like Ford, Phillips, Sinclair and others have looked into this) wanted him to hand over his formula first. He refused, suspecting they'd rip him off.

Instead, Guido signed up small investors, who had perhaps read about him in the National Tattler or some equally reliable publication. Guido would give them a backyard demonstration in which he'd take a a gallon of water, mix in the green powder, and use the resultant concoction to operate, say, a lawn mower. Frequently he'd convince them to cough up some dough — typically $1,000 in return for 1 percent of the profits — so he could make more powder and give additional demonstrations. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of these investments — Guido would claim he'd run into unexpected problems, there was an illness in the family, etc. Occasionally Guido would fork over a vial of the green powder, but it would always turn out to be ordinary green vegetable dye.

As a result of such shenanigans, Guido was hauled into court a couple times, once in 1954 and again in 1979, on charges of fraud. He was acquitted the first time — the prosecution's expert witness admitted it was possible Guido's Mota fuel really worked. But he wasn't as lucky the second time. A witness testified that Guido had once admitted that he'd substituted aviation fuel for the water by sleight-of-hand, and prosecutors showed that he'd taken $20,000 from various parties and given nothing in return. Guido was convicted and given five years probation. He did not "disappear forever," however — at least not right away. Prior to his death a few years ago at age 80+, I talked with him at the barbershop where he hung out. He still claimed he could make gasoline out of water. He said if folks were willing to put up a $25,000 "loan," he'd make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. As far as I know, it never happened. But tell you what. Send me the money and I'll see what I can do.

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