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Drivers step on the herbs

Some of India's top scientists and politicians were convinced: Ponnaiah Ramar Pillai, a school drop-out from a poor Tamil Nadu village, had made the most revolutionary discovery of the century. Using a few herbs, he could transform water into petrol.

It all started, or so Pillai claims, on a class picnic in 1978 in the Western Ghat rainforests. "When I lit up a stove, a spark fell on a small plant and the green leaves started to burn vigorously," he told India Today. "It later dawned on me that I had witnessed something very different."

The trouble was finding the plant again. Pillai dropped out of school and spent the next 10 years roaming the Western Ghat jungle, trying to set fire to hundreds of different plants until, at last, he found the combustible one. He set up a simple laboratory in his home at Idaiyankulam and over the years his herbal fuel, which sold for 20 rupees a litre, powered the villagers' scooters, tractors and generators.

In July, he was given a chance to prove his herbal petrol in New Delhi, the capital, at the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The department secretary, V Ramamurthy, was convinced. "If this is true, we are sitting on a goldmine," he exclaimed after seeing Pillai's alchemy.

The excited Indian press compared Pillai to Albert Einstein. The Tamil Nadu state government promised him a patent, financial help, and 20 well- protected acres in which to farm his mysterious plants.

Then it all fizzled out. Last month, he performed the experiment before physicists and chemical engineers at the India Institute of Technology. When Pillai's petrol was sent away for analysis scientists realised something had been added to it. The mixture, which had started as one litre of water, was revealed, after the experiment, to be 400 ml of fuel and 900ml of water. Pillai's herbal invention was nothing more than paraffin, naptha, diesel and petrol.

The scientists demanded Pillai undergo a second test, using their instruments. It failed. Then Pillai insisted on using his own stirring spoon, claiming that its copper and iron composition was vital to the process. The scientists relented, but then one of them noticed the spoon had been hollowed out and filled with real petrol which Pillai had then released into the water. "It was nothing but a crude trick," admitted the DST's Mr Ramamurthy, who had been village inventor's biggest champion.

Yet in Tamil Nadu, Pillai has become a folk hero, who transmutes his leaves into petrol before thousands of cheering spectators.