The Act of Incorporation of theNational Academy of Sciences vests us with responsibilities for (a) Good Science (b) Optimal use of resources and (c) Care for the environment.

Three years ago the Sunday Times on line (10 February 2008) carried the astonishing claim that a Sri Lankan inventor had developed a process for converting polythene and other wastes into diesel. He had developed a “secret chemical” that enabled a kilogram of raw material to yield one litre of diesel. In a cryptic elaboration, it was stated that the “product was 86.5% petroleum and the balance diesel”. The process had been endorsed by Prof. Jagath Premachandra of theUniversity of Moratuwa. The CPC pledged orders for 15,000 litres per day. Vehicle performance was claimed to be improved by 7 kilometres per litre above the present level. Twenty litres (20 l) of diesel had been obtained from 20 kg of Polythene. The inventor, Mr.Ananda Vithanage from Yatiyantota claimed that his process could save 2 Billion (Yes, 2,000 million) Rupees per year if he was given the necessary “facilities”.

On 19th February 2008, an Internet news item (Sinhale Hot News) reported that a tripartite agreement was signed at the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) by its Chairman, Mr Udaya Gamanpila to provide such “facilities”.  It was reported that the Treasury had released Rs.12.5 million and that if the project was successful, a larger scale venture was envisaged. It was noted that in 2008 the import bill for petroleum products was 350 billion and that this amount could then be saved.

One month later on 18 March, NASSL Fellow, Dr U.Pethiyagoda (Dr. UP) wrote to Minister Champika Ranawake with copy to Minister Tissa Vitarana (also a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences), expressing his doubts on the veracity of the claims that had been made. It was not possible for an industrial process to be reversed from product to raw materials with a net gain of usable energy. On receiving the information that the Environment Ministry planned to release Rs. 25 million and expected a daily output of 5000 litres of diesel from the project, Dr. Pethiyagoda drew attention to the availability of the NASSL, Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC), Institute of Chemistry, Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) and the Universities as sources to which the CEA could turn for guidance. It would be injudicious to spend public money on a science related project without such advice.  Dr. UP stated in his letters that he was open to correction if any of his assumptions were wrong. Neither Minister responded or even acknowledged his letter.

On 1st April 2008, full page newspaper advertisements announced the launching of a new company, “Polipto“. An accompanying picture showed Minister Ranawake discharging fuel from a commercial pump into a vehicle. Forty litres (40 l), it was reported, were supplied free of charge to 5 three wheelers and 3 motor bikes, at 5 litres each. The following claims were made:-

  • The pilot plant at Yatiyantota had a capacity of 500 to 1000 litres per day at a conversion of 0.75 to 1.0 litres/kg polythene
  • “Polipto petrol” could be sold at Rs 75/= to 80/= per ltre.
  • The project has been approved by CPC and the product tested and passed by Moratuwa University.
  • The inventor has received numerous private sector offers, including from UK. These have been rejected as the inventor wishes  the Sri Lanka sate to have priority (Elections to Parliament followed a week later.).

On 3 July, Dr. UP drew the attention of the two Ministers to his earlier letter and deplored the lack of response. If the unconfirmed information that public funds had already been released to the inventor is true, it represents a “deplorable lack of professionalism and cavalier irresponsibility” with public funds. No response from either Minister, despite disclosing some of Dr. UP’s credentials.

On 11 August, a third letter was sent to the two Ministers, enclosing copies of a newspaper report that the Cabinet had granted approval to Minister Ranawake to establish a Limited Liability Company with stake- holders CEA (60%), Inventor Ananda Vitanage (30%) and the University of Moratuwa (10%) to “produce and supply all types of fossil fuels converting from plastic and polythene wastes, under The Company Act No: 7 of 2007″.

No replies or acknowledgements!

In the absence of any official reaction, Dr. UP resorted to the press. In “The Island” of 9 November 2010, he drew attention to the astonishing claim that aneconomic conversion of polythene and other wastes to diesel by using a “Secret Catalyst” could effect an annual saving of Two  Billion Rupees. The process was reported to have received the endorsement of the Department of Chemical Engineering of the University of Moratuwa and support of the then Minister of Environment. In fact, the newspapers had published an advertisement with a picture of the minister discharging the diesel (presumably produced by the process) through what appeared to be a commercial fuel pump.

On 19th November 2010, a Mr. M.S. Abdeen agreed with the above and regarded the issue as “embarrassingly suspicious”. He cited previous instances of such fanciful claims as amounting to nothing except total silence.

On 20 November 2010, Prof. W.Abeywickreme (Prof. WA), Chairman of the AEA  and previously Chairman, CEA  responded on behalf of “Polipto”. His letter was rich in innuendo, insult and invective but poor on facts. He claimed to have taught Dr Pethiyagoda how to browse the Web and blamed him for going on rumours regarding expenditures. He repeated the Agreement between the CEA, Mr Vithanage and Moratuwa and repeated that a yield of a litre of fuel could be obtained from a kilo of waste.

A complete report on feasibility by the Moratuwa University was submitted on 16 November 2010. He made the startling claim that Albert Einstein like ex-police officer Mr Vithanage had no “formal University education”.

Dr. UP replied two days later (Island, 22 November) pointing out that the issue of commercial viability was not confirmed in a single of the numerous reports on the conversion available on the Internet. He pointed out that a litre of diesel from a kilo of polythene represents an 82-95% conversion, possibly surpassing any other industrial process. He also expressed surprise that the “rumoured” amounts spent on this project could be committed by the CEA Board outside Budget and without Ministerial or Cabinet sanction. According to Dr, UP such large amounts of money could not be spent in  such a cavalier fashion during his time on the CEA Board. He noted that Prof WA does not answer the question of accountability in public funding. Moratuwa’s “Complete Report on the process…..” should have been referred to bodies such as NSF,NASTEC,IFS etc. Dr. UP expressed his willingness to banish all his reservations if the requested disclosures so warranted.

Three days later (“Island 25 November, 2010) there was a further letter from Prof. WA entitled “Diesel from polythene Vithanage Process Vs Pethiyagoda ‘A lost Battle’. This was also a senselessly provocative and derogatory letter. A fictitious telephone call requesting Dr. UP to search the Web, was concocted. Witness cited was a Mr Roshan Gunawardene (at the time Director, Post Plastic Consumer Unit at CEA and now a Working Director at the CEB) who, not surprisingly, totally corroborated Prof WA! Also the plastic to diesel project was moved out of the CEA to the Ministry of Power, with Minister Ranawake’s change of portfolio. Prof WA proceeded to furnish three references to “commercial plants”. All these turned out to be firms trying to sell equipment. None mentions financial viability.

Prof WA also makes the point in his letter that even if there were no commercial plants elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with our creating history “as a proud nation”. Citing the hackneyed “Irrigation Miracle”, it is stated that the current “successful R & D Project” was funded by CEA on the advice of “a team of well qualified members with innovative ideas”. He said that Dr UP can get all the information on money spent from the CEA.

Acting on the last bit of advice, Dr P addressed two letters dated 28 November and 23 December 2010 to Chairman, CEA. Significantly, these two letters also remain unanswered.

This sordid story raises many issues including:

  • Profligacy with public money, remembering that this same Government which has not had the financial ability to provide the modest funding required to keep afloat institutions and learned societies in the scientific sector, is still able to provide undisclosed large sums to support “pie in the sky” projects.(COPE and the Auditor General please note)
  • The qualifications, competence and possibly integrity of those placed in key positions.
  • The right of concerned members of the public to receive information regarding publicly funded project, to which they are rightly entitled
  • The unpardonable lethargy of ourselves as scientists to not demand ethical behaviour within the mandates assigned to us by Acts of Parliament. Are we scientists or sheep, is the obvious question!
  • If Dr UP is wrong in his lone battle, is it not our duty as scientist to tell him so?We of the NASSL have reason to be ashamed!! Have we forgotten how in the Case of the Eppawala Phosphate matter, no less an authority than theSupreme Court commended the unsolicited intervention of the NASSL in a matter of national interest, quoting copiously and flatteringly from our report.

A Concerned Fellow