A 1963 Chevrolet Corvair might be stylish, but it doesn’t exactly say environmental sustainability. Unless Portland, Oregon college student Blake Turner is behind the wheel.
He can convert his turquoise classic car from gas-guzzler to zero-carbon with the flip of a switch. It’s a prototype that was inspired by an Earth Day chemistry project on climate change. Working with his sibling Mel Turner and classmate Sean Krivonogoff, he later developed a conversion kit that allows any gasoline-powered engine to use hydrogen, resulting in a zero-carbon car.
Now he’s president of a company, Turner Automotive, whose goal is to make eco-friendly driving accessible to anyone who wants it. We spoke to Turner about his prototype, how growing up in a do-it-yourself household inspired him to become an inventor, and why affordability is ultimately his driving factor.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What inspired you to turn a classic Corvair into an eco-friendly car?
My family, we always liked classic cars. The newest car we have right now (that runs) is 50 years old. And so it really stemmed from how can we take our classic car hobby and make it sustainable. It started as an Earth Day project for a chemistry class, looking into something that helps with climate change. And with the current solutions for automobiles — electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — you have to buy a new car. So that’s when I really focused on actual conversion.
How did you decide on using hydrogen as a fuel?
I sort of stumbled upon it. My teacher at Rogue Community College gave a hydrogen demo, filling a balloon with hydrogen. I realized that’s exactly what happens in a car engine. A gasoline engine is at the core a very simple device. When you burn gasoline it heats up, that expands the air and drives the piston. Hydrogen actually burns very similar to gasoline. It’s the same combustion reaction. And so that’s all it really is, changing that one fuel. I did the math and found out that it’s not only possible, but it’s actually practical.
How did you first test it out?
So obviously you don’t want to just jump in and put hydrogen in your car. We bought a small, single-cylinder engine that people use for things like Go Karts to just see if it was even possible. We just took the tank and ran a hose from the pressure regulator directly into the carburetor as our conversion kit. We tried to run it and it backfired a couple of times and made little fireworks, but once we got the hydrogen dialed in, it actually ran really well, bolted in the back of my van right in our driveway.
How does your current prototype work?
Actually controlling how much fuel goes in the engine and being able to convert to hydrogen through the installation of the kit is a little more complicated. But once it’s built, all the person needs to do is undo two bolts, slide in a plate, and bolt it back together. All the existing components on the engine stay exactly the same. There is a switch inside the car that allows you to switch from gasoline to hydrogen. You don’t even need to get out of the car.
This protoype has won you and your team multiple awards, including Rogue Community College Inventors Challenge, Portland State University’s CleanTech Challenge and InventOregon competition. How have people reacted to it?
They’re usually surprised that I chose a classic car as our demo car. The prototype is my personal car — it’s a ’63 Corvair. Most people are surprised that a young person has a car that old. And most people are surprised that I took my own car and ran it on hydrogen rather than getting a second car in case something bad happens.
You know, actually building the thing is the easiest part. The biggest challenge we’ve had is allowing people to let us use hydrogen. For InventOregon, we brought the car into the building, and apparently there was a lot of craziness going on behind the scenes. The Hindenburg always comes to mind whenever you talk about hydrogen.
But people are always really excited when they hear about the project. You take a car that already exists and make it zero carbon, it’s definitely an attention grabber.
Why was climate change a topic that you wanted to tackle?
I feel that climate change is by far the biggest issue we have to overcome as a society. And I feel that it’s my ethical responsibility to do something about it. I couldn’t have a clear conscience if I went into doing something that still uses fossil fuels. I feel that I have to do something that is sustainable. If people use our conversion kit, we have the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by 40 billion tons a year. But without replacing a single car on the road.
What other considerations besides environmental responsibility drive your work?
Affordability has been the biggest pushing point when it comes to owning a more sustainable car. So right now, if you want to have a sustainable car you have to buy an electric car. And that doesn’t work for all circumstances, if you need to drive long distance or drive a lot to work. Not everyone can afford electric cars that have the range to satisfy their needs. So they’ll buy an electric car to drive around the city but then a gas car if they need to go on a road trip. And they have two cars and that’s not environmentally sustainable and it’s not affordable for a lot of people.
By actually taking the car that you already own and converting it to burn hydrogen instead of gas, it’s tremendously more sustainable. It’s like taking the two cars that you have to have in your driveway, your sustainable one and your gasoline one and combining them. And the kit costs 10 times to 20 times less than a new electric car. That’s really where it stemmed from, actually being able to take something that people already have and allow them to make it more sustainable without the large upfront cost.
Did you ever think you would become an inventor and founder of a startup company?
Well, it’s kind of surreal. I’ve always been an inventor at heart, I’ve always liked making things. Back in second grade, I was like, “I’m going to be a business owner.” It’s always been a dream of mine. But in high school, people start telling you that you have to be realistic. You have to choose something that is practical, that you can have a career out of. And so I chose engineering — that’s the closest thing I could think of to inventing.
My game plan was be an engineer and then retire and then start my business with the money I’ve saved up through that. And all of this has completely changed my life. It has given me an entirely new perspective. You can actually go out there and try to make something for yourself and get your hands dirty while you’re still in college. Actually making something that’s real and tangible, and seeing your original idea being put into a physical project that actually works, it’s amazing.
What in your background inspired you to become an inventor?
Rebuilding things, putting things together, getting hands dirty, it’s just always something that’s been part of our family. Just that whole atmosphere of the do it yourself, because we didn’t have a lot of money. If you want to fix something, you can’t just take it to the mechanic, you have to fix it yourself. Everything from if the toaster breaks, got to fix it. If the sink is leaking, got to fix it. Do it yourself, or deal with a broken sink.
What inventors inspire you?
Really the people who make the things we use every day. People like Henry Ford, who completely changed the world. When you ask people what was the first car, people will say the Model T. You know Model T came around about 30 years after the first car. But for many Americans, the Model T was the first car they could afford.
The guy who invented the toaster. I mean, how many people use a toaster? Everybody. And so it’s not the people who make the fanciest things but the people who make something that everybody can get their hands on and everybody can use. And that’s the kind of impact I want to have — making something that even if people don’t know my name, they use and benefit from.