An autistic inventor who discovered how to convert plastic waste into fuel oil — without ever having studied chemistry — is having trouble selling his idea to Mexican authorities.
The special catalytic converter was created by former language teacher Gerardo Nungaray Benítez and has attracted international awards. The Zacatecas native is now trying to get his invention installed across Mexico, approaching local governments in the hope that they will adopt the new technology.
The converter, which allows trash to be reused as combustible fuel, has potential ecological and economic benefits.
The 45-year-old Nungaray says his interest in chemistry and inventions began when he was a child. When he started fabricating pumps he earned the nickname El Güero Bombas, güero for his fair skin and bombas for pumps. He was just 11 years old when he made his own beer and designed an electric toilet.
He admits that he never got to study chemistry formally because he was “a problem child,” testing positive for Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by hyperactive behavior and concentrating to the point of obsession on a single object or theme. This condition led to his being frequently expelled from school.
Despite these setbacks, El Güero’s passion for chemistry continued unabated until his father forced him to leave home at 15 as a punishment for unruly behavior. Nungaray moved to the U.S., where he took a job as a chicken farmer.
However, during this time he also worked as a fibreglass and polymer manufacturer, completing his self-taught studies and learning English and several other languages.
His newfound linguistic ability gave him access to many scientific studies in the field of chemistry, and after returning to Mexico El Güero spent the next several years working as a language teacher.
But he never lost his interest in scientific invention and research, and six years ago he gave up his job as a teacher to devote his energy to developing the converter.
The initial idea behind the invention came to Nungaray when he was taking rubbish from his house to a local dump, where he saw a homeless boy scavenging. When he witnessed the boy opening a bag full of infected materials from a clinic, he decided to develop an incinerator to get rid of dangerous and contaminating waste.
It was while working on the incinerator that El Güero had his introduction to pyrolysis, a process of chemical decomposition that turns garbage into a liquid. He then realized that he could use this technique to reduce plastic garbage back to its original state — petroleum.
According to Nungaray, his catalytic converter can transform a tonne of trash into 900 liters of combustible fuel at a cost of 4.5 pesos per liter. For this simple reason, his converter is both profitable and sustainable, allowing garbage to be reused as fuel.
If his invention were installed throughout the country, he believes, 12 million liters of diesel and gasoline could be produced daily. El Güero hopes that energy reforms in the coming years will allow such machines to be commercialized.
But getting governments to introduce such reforms will be a significant challenge. “I don’t believe the authorities have shown any interest,” he says. “Public servants lack vision, unless they can benefit themselves. This is what is currently stopping major projects being developed in Zacatecas and throughout Mexico.”
He adds that so far the only place to have shown any major interest in adopting the technology is the Zacatecas city of Fresnillo.
Yet El Güero’s invention has received attention elsewhere. Last year it earned third place and a US $20,000 prize in a History Channel Latin America competition that attracted 5,000 entries for “an idea to change history.”