Sludge can form in as little as two months, and when enough of it collects on the bottom of the fuel tanks, or when it's churned into suspension in the diesel fuel by rough weather, it can be drawn into the fuel system, where it can clog filters and worse: "The [sludge] is like little pieces of asphalt rocks that can grind up the injection system," O'Connell explains. "Small particles get caught inside the injector pump and injectors and wear them out." And, he continues, high heat and pressure in the engine "cooks" the fuel that's returned to the tank, making the problem worse. According to O'Connell, the solution is to make the big pieces into little ones again: "It's not magic, it's physics." And it's done, interesting enough, with magnets.
Open an Algae-X Model LG-X in-line fuel conditioner, and you'll find nothing but a doughnut-shaped magnet. No fins, no filters, no baffles, nothing—just the magnet. But the magnet is designed so its lines of force intersect just right with the fuel passing through the unit. "It's most effective when the electrons collide with the magnetic field at 90 degrees," explains O'Connell. "The fuel flows around the magnet." Algae-X builds eight models in the LG-X series, from a 3"x3" unit for up to a 25-gph flow rate (say, 200 hp or less) to a 6"x6" model that can handle up to the 2,500-gph flow of a 3,000-plus-hp diesel. (When calculating flow rates, remember that a diesel pumps more fuel than it burns; the excess, used for cooling the injectors, is returned to the tank.) The cost for most boats is probably less than that for a tank of fuel, including installation, which is simple and certainly less hassle than calling a towing company when your diesel succumbs to sludge.
Magnetic reconditioning of diesel fuel may sound New Age-y, but it's based on sound science. According to chemist G. Merrill Andrus, the spin of their electrons causes some fuel molecules to nestle with others and form "almost solid" particles (i.e., sludge) in the liquid. Age, heat, and microbes accelerate the formation of sludge; a dose of magnetic energy can break up the clusters by changing the spin of the electrons in some, but not all, molecules. Molecules whose spin has reversed stop nestling with their unchanged neighbors, and the sludge breaks apart. (Read the whole text of Andrus' paper, along with other reports supporting Algae-X technology on magnetic fuel conditioning and fuel treatment.) If you think this is all a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, consider what happens when you move a loop of copper wire through a magnetic field: You get electricity. Would you believe that if you didn't see proof of it every day? I wouldn't, but it's true.
Because the diesel in Thiel's tanks was already dirty, simply installing an in-line conditioner wasn't enough. He needed his fuel cleaned, polished, and reconditioned before starting the engine for the first time in 2006. And yes, Algae-X builds the gear for this, too. Jim Dallow, from Hinckley Yacht Services, an Algae-X dealer in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, arrived alongside Thiel's boat with an Algae-X MTC-1000 Mobile Tank Cleaning System in his van. The MTC-1000 consists of a fuel pump, separator/coalescer, spin-on fuel filter, and an Algae-X in-line fuel conditioner mounted on an aluminum cart, along with several valves and gauges. The 160-pound assembly stands 4'0"H x 2'0"W x 2'0"D, with a handcart-style frame and wheels that make it easy to move. Algae-X builds several commercial tank-cleaning systems like this one, with up to 1,500-gph capacities; the MTC-1000 can pump 900 gph. The company also makes permanent-mount fuel-polishing systems that can circulate and recondition fuel while the boat sits in the slip.
This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.