How To Sniff Out a Fraud

I tend to get a lot of e-mails from people either claiming to have invented the next big thing in alternative energy, or from people who want to know if a particular company has something that seems worthwhile. Generally, I can sniff out the scams and pseudoscientists pretty quickly. There are lots of telltale signs.

In general there will be no patents, nor patents pending. They will often tell tales of having their invention suppressed. A secret catalyst or secret formulation is another frequent theme. (People too often ascribe magical properties to catalysts. Catalysts can speed up a reaction, but they do not allow you to get around the laws of thermodynamics.) Scam companies will often incorporate a hot buzzword into their company name or the name of their technology, like ‘nano…’ (implying nanotechnology). Claims that the technology will solve the world’s energy crisis are all too common. Many times, it simply comes down to “if it seems too good to be true…” However, I normally give people the benefit of the doubt and I investigate further.

Sometimes a scam isn’t easy to sniff out, and sometimes an invention is a real breakthrough. Since I have often been asked about how to sort the wheat from the chaff, I will document a recent investigation into a company that looked promising at first glance. The company first came to my attention via a poster at The Oil Drum who posted a link about a company called AlphaKat. Here was the post:

I have a member on my website board who is pushing really hard biomass gasification as means to save us all. Here’s the company he mentioned earlier with process capable of using everything one can think about:

Can anyone give some comments about this?a few Utube videos full of high optimism also…

sounds too good to be true – therefore it is?

I checked out some of the videos, which sounded intriguing but highly improbable. Regardless, I did some digging. The technology was invented by a German named Christian Koch. Dr. Koch had teamed with Austrian immigrant Michael Spitzauer to bring the technology to the U.S. Dr. Koch has a U.S. patent pending on the process (United States Patent Application 20050115871). You can see interviews (in English) with both Dr. Koch and Spitzauer here:

Interviews with Koch and Spitzauer

I noticed a couple of things when I read through the patent. First, the claims that were being made were that it could turn any biomass into diesel, but the patent seems to indicate that you must start with an oil of some type. The technology sounds very much like thermal depolymerization (TDP), which as we know works (except not on things like woody biomass), but is not economical. It was certainly not a biomass gasification process. However, there is nothing that I am aware of that is capable of unraveling cellulose and turning it into a fuel in 3 minutes. So it definitely sounded too good to be true.

This sounded interesting, so I worked my way to the website of Michael Spitzauer. The website is incredibly cheesy, poorly designed, and full of fractured English. If you dig, you can see that he has made his wife – a former cocktail waitress – a Senior Vice President of the company. Technical expertise among the team seems to be in very short supply. I also spotted the tell-tale buzzword “Nano”-diesel:

Green Power Inc

At this point, things are starting to smell funny. Digging a little deeper, I found that Spitzauer has been convicted of fraud, and has been involved in multiple shady dealings. He was also scammed by a Nigerian advance fee scheme, so may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer:

Austrian Fights Extradition

Something’s Rotten – Green Power

Yet Another Gas Scam? – Discussion on Snopes’ Message Board

Trash-to-diesel technology raises eyebrows

In that last link, he says the oil companies are out to get him, and this is why his past has been exposed:

“The big oil companies in Europe and this country have made threats to us, but even if they would do something to our lives, this company will go on,” Spitzauer said. “Our plant works, and we will make diesel for the people.”

But doubts have been raised about the claims made for Green Power’s technology and about Spitzauer’s personal history — a history that includes a fraud conviction in his native Austria, a lengthy extradition battle in a separate case, and the bankruptcy of his previous business venture.

In an interview, Spitzauer, 38, said none of that was relevant to Green Power and its prospects. “What easier way is there to discredit somebody than to look at something in their past?” he said. “We are here for the future.”

So, we have a process that sounds too good to be true and the involvement of a convicted fraudster who is now saying the oil companies are out to get him. Not knowing more, I would steer clear. This all sounds much like the claims that Xethanol was making. Some of their key players had been previously accused of fraud as well. What happened? Their claims fell apart, and Xethanol finally went bankrupt (as I had predicted) because they couldn’t do what they said they could do:

Xethanol Now Defunct

Finally, I should point out that Michael Spitzauer has had a falling out with Dr. Koch. So it is still possible – albeit I think remotely – that Dr. Koch’s original invention is what he claims it is. But, if you want to put the technology to a real test, run some biomass through the machine that is spiked with a radioisotope (maybe C14) that would show up in the product. I will bet money that the spiked carbon doesn’t show up in the hydrocarbon, and that will be the end of that. If I were a prospective investor, I would insist upon such a test.

This particular case turned up a lot of dirt pretty easily once I started digging. It isn’t always that easy. But there are a still a good number of people who are convinced that this is for real. I think it is very telling, though, that skepticism runs high among the chemists and chemical engineers mentioned in the various links. But as I said, one can design tests to prove or disprove the claims.

26 thoughts on “How To Sniff Out a Fraud”

  1. In financial circles, there is an expression: A skunk cannot change his stripes. By that we mean if you see a character involved in a financial fraud in one arena, he or she will almost surely commit fraud in the next arena.
    The skunks are very skilled at following investment trends. If dot.coms are hot, they hustle dot.coms, if energy is hot, they hustle energy. They hype, over-promise, they are usually very, very good salemen.
    Investor beware.

  2. Alternate energy does not even have to be a scam to be a bad investment. Energy is a low margin business with a huge amount of regulations involved. This is as it should be.

  3. Have you any interest in the new nano-atomized polymer fuel injection system I’m developing for big bore diesel engines?

    Basically, it’s a repleneration of forty-one manestically spaced grouting brushes arranged to feed into the rotor polymer slipstream using a mixture of high S-value phenylhydrobenzamine and 5% reminative tetryliodohexamine.

    I expect fuel mileage to be in excess of 180 mpg, if the U.S. Government (EPA and NASA) in conspiracy with the Big Three automakers and Big Oil don’t suppress it.

  4. Have you any interest in the new nano-atomized polymer fuel injection system I’m developing for big bore diesel engines?

    Only if it can be engineered to run off of cellulosic ethanol or algal biodiesel. 🙂


  5. I looked into Koch’s technology in detail several years ago. As described in Koch’s original patent application, his process uses viscous heating; that is, heat generated by agitating a viscous liquid (oil). This is how he gets around the problem of coking in an indirectly-heated cracking or depolymerization process. However, this is a very inefficient heating mode, so his process needs lots of energy input. His catalyst is just a zeolite cracking catalyst, nothing novel. The catalyst is fouled irreversibly in the process, so it is an expensive consumable. They once convinced some gullible reporters of the importance of their process by offering a demonstration, in which they put some biomass into their reactor, agitated for a few minutes, then drained some oil out. They did not bother to tell the reporters that the oil was in the reactor at the beginning – it is required for viscous heating. These demonstrations generated some buzz at the time, which may be why there are still glowing reports about the process on the web. But I do not see any practical applications for this process.

  6. Thanks, RR,
    It’s a great post.

    However, there is nothing that I am aware of that is capable of unraveling cellulose and turning it into a fuel in 3 minutes.
    Of course, familiarity with the chemical structure of cellulose helps: Basically you have 6 carbon rings of glucose linked to each other via oxygen bridges (-O-). In the ring, each carbon is linked to its own -OH group. To produce a hydrocarbon you would need to replace 6 -OH groups with -H (And where is that -H going to come from? But I digress) on each glucose monomer. And then you would have hexane (C-6), i.e. barely gasoline, and not diesel by a long shot.

    Add to that some physical challenges, such as this property (from the same source): Compared to starch, cellulose is also much more crystalline. Whereas starch undergoes a crystalline to amorphous transition when heated beyond 60-70°C in water (as in cooking), cellulose requires a temperature of 320°C and pressure of 25 MPa to become amorphous in water. So, you need some pretty severe conditions, just to gain access to the cellulose structure. Koch thinks he can do that with a mixer? Good luck with that!

    As described in Koch’s original patent application, his process uses viscous heating; that is, heat generated by agitating a viscous liquid (oil).
    More problems: using a high quality form of energy (electricity, to drive the mixer motor) to produce a low quality form, i.e. heat.

    The obvious heat source would be to burn some of that low-grade feedstock, or byproducts.

  7. I work as a patent examiner in the chemical arts. I like this site for keeping me abreast of various biofuel technologies. A couple of comments:

    “In general there will be no patents, nor patents pending.”

    There is about an 18 month window where a patent application may have been submitted but not have been published. Also inventors who plan only to apply for a patent in the United States have a right to not have their patent application published at all and held under secrecy until it is allowed.

    A grant of patent doesn’t necessarily mean that a process is efficient or practical from a cost or engineering standpoint.

    An examiner basically only checks whether something is novel (all the steps claimed haven’t been done) and non-obvious (whether a person of ‘ordinary’ skill would be able to come up with the invention or not).

    An examiner can deny a patent if it can be proven that it ‘always’ violates some fundamental physical law like thermodynamics or the speed of light.

    But in general patent application idea could have a ROI of 1000 years, a negative EROI, or just be a plain bad idea and a patent will be awarded as long as it is novel and non-obvious (some other things like clarity and written description are also required).

    It may even be easier to get a really bad idea patented because the examiner wouldn’t be able to find any scientific literature on a idea that doesn’t work.

    So in summary a granted patent doesn’t necessarily guarantee an excellent invention.

  8. I can see that people always go back to what was alleged against me in the past, I dont want to go into that at all at the moment just because if soembody has a question ask me and I will tell in person. But I dont want it to be just taken out of context all over the net.

    But what I would like to invite people is to just come and see because we actually have a full size (100 Tons dry watse (17% to be exact) per day) system operational converting into approx 12000 Gallons of Fossil Free Fuel TM. So not just on paper or on a table, no full size. A lot of people claim that but when you ask them to show it to you they want your money to build one, we dont we have it we dont ask for your money.

    We did all this without any Government funding! No Tax Credits etc, So we could prove it really works.

    Our Patents are completely different from Alphakat as I had to learn the hard way that his does and cannot work.

    All I can say come touch, feel and see and make up your mind, because the technology can help us all out of our energy problem which is a huge part of the financial crisis we now have.

    I dont ask for money and I dont look for Investors at all, so no strings attached, all I ask is that when you verify it for yourself, please except the fact that it is real and let it help us take care of our waste problems and energy issues.

    Our websit is

    and I am aware it could be fancier but what we focussed on was to build the real thing and not to be a Web site developer.

    As you can see we stayed out of the News , you ask yourself why becasue all it brought us before is accusation etc, so we just stayed low, build the Plant so we can show in reality what we claim and what we have.

    If you have more question you can always direct them to me at

    I will try to get them answered as soon as possible.

    I hope this allows you to check it for yourself and you dont have to rely what others claim, we are open in what we do and we are proud of it and we will get it implemented because we believe it to be the right thing and we have the solution ready.


    Michael P Spitzauer
    CEO Green Power Inc

  9. I liked the way you characterized potential fraudsters. I think this is also a good way of sussing out certain folks and activist groups who make strident claims against the energy industry.

    From these people we invariably hear about conspiracy (oil companies can set oil prices) and suppression (water powered cars killed by Big Oil and the auto industry). For lack of patents, substitute lack of any compelling evidence for claims. A quick check on their backgrounds usually reveals no technical training or relevant industry experience.

    Unfortunately, the general public, and lots of politicians, seem to be pretty susceptible to the views of these “analysts”.

  10. Our Patents are completely different from Alphakat as I had to learn the hard way that his does and cannot work.

    Against my better judgment…

    1. What are your patent numbers?
    2. Where is your plant located?
    3. Where is the product being sold?
    4. Finally, your claim of 100 dry tons to produce 12,000 gallons of fuel would imply that between 85% and 100% of the BTUs in the feed end up in the product (depending on exactly what the feed is). No way. For reference, GTL and CTL come in at about half that value.


  11. Oil prices are about to scoot upward,whether world economies are ready or not. Inventories are being drawn down by 1.4M bpd,and OPEC might just be stupid enough to cut production again. We could be faced with 70’s style stagflation for some time to come. At what price point do alternatives become affordable and able to scale? Has anyone done the homework on this? If biofuels will always cost more than oil,how high will prices have to go for consumers to switch to electric? $200? $300? Maybe more?

  12. Maury-

    There is some buzz now, maybe PR hype, maybe planted stories, that oil supplies are suddenly tightening. This is after months of supply easily exceeding demand.
    Meanwhile, the World Bank said today industrial output globally could fall by 15 percent in 2009 vs. 2008.

    Here are excerpts from the gloomiest World Bank reports I have read in my professional life of nearly four decades:

    “Global economy will contract in 2009 for first time since World War II, World Bank says….Investors received yet another indicator Monday that this is not your father’s recession…The global economy will likely contract in 2009 for the first time since World War II — including a decline in trade….Global GDP will likely be a whopping 5 percentage points below potential, the bank said. The forecast represents an enormous decline in global output, and the fact that the bank is predicting a real decline in GDP indicates how much the financial crisis and the accompanying reduction in demand has slowed economies in both the developed and developing worlds…Further, trade is on a pace to record its largest decline in 80 years, the bank said. What’s more, industrial output — the durable, heavy production process of the world, if you will — could contract as much as 15% below 2008 levels by the middle of 2009…”

    Me talking again: This is horrible news, and a terrible outlook.

    How on earth oil will stage anything but a dead cat bounce when industrial output falls by 15 percent, and trade falls by even more, is beyond me. Oil for what? To bath in?

    Right now, I think the NYMEX is being monkeyed with. Maybe through a combination of output cuts, NYMEX manipulation, and PR hype, OPEC and quislings can keep oil in double digits. For a while. Russia selling theirs at $12 a barrel to the Chinese right now, unless you believe complicated present value calculations that assume interest rates of 10 percent or more. Interest rates could be in negative range soon.
    I wouldn’t want to be in the oil business right now. Demand looks sure to fall 10 percent to 15 percent in 2009 from 2008, indicating global excess supplies in the 10 mbd range, before OPEC cuts, and 6 mbd after such cuts. Not only that, recovery in demand to 2007 levels will be glacially slow, as in a decade or more. Or maybe never.
    When did Japan recover from its bank collapse? And when did its oil demand recover: Not yet, and its been 20 years.

  13. RBM said:
    Anybody know if a ‘fraud’ has ever made it through the patent office ?

    All the time. The patent office doesn’t really have the time or manpower to evaluate whether something is actually possible or not. However, having a patent means we can read what you claim to be the truth. I used to read a company’s patents before a job interview to gain a better understanding and so that I could pose intelligent questions.

  14. Benny, your demand equations are way off the mark. Demand was off 1M bpd last year,and experts predict another 1M bpd drop this year. That’s nowhere near 10%. More like 2.5%. Meanwhile,OPEC cut production 4.2M bpd,or 5%. It might be safe to assume marginal production isn’t being hustled to market either. There are hundreds of tiny wells in my area. They might do 40 or 50 bpd. They’re very easy to shut down,and those around my fishing spots have been. I know that’s antedotal as hell,but why would anyone sell the last few thousand barrels at basement rates unless they had to?

    Oil would be over $60 a barrel today if the dollar hadn’t appreciated 25% since last summer. Given economic conditions,that’s pretty darn scary. Even scarier,OPEC is back in the driver’s seat. Inventories are falling and OPEC is considering yet another cut.

  15. I read through the trash to diesel stuff. It made my head hurt. Seems to be utter nonsense – but not really enough information. It as if someone just threw a bunch of buzzwords together. If the claims are real then they need to get a bonafide engineer to produce a heat and material balance. At least you would think they could provide an assay of the product. A test run maybe? Since a big chunk of municipal waste is paper, start with a couple bags of cellulose insulation, see if you can turn that into anything.

    It would make a pretty good story. Imagine the snake oil salesman that stumbles upon a real cure for cancer, or the confidence man who invents cold fusion. Given their past, would anyone ever believe them?

  16. Maury-
    I think to date demand is off a few mbd, but (unfortunately) it looks like it is going to get worse, a lot worse.
    If global trade falls 20 percent, and industrial production falls 15 percent, how much does oil consumption fall? (Also construction must be falling by 50 percent, and it is fuel-intensive).
    For now, the oil bulls are having a run. Maybe the economy will turn around in late 2009, and oil prices can hold. I hope so.
    But this recession looks deep and scary. I am not happy about it. The consequences of the Bush Administration economic mismanagement are very severe.
    And how do you like our OPEC buddies? The global economy is tanking, in desperate need of a boost. But OPEC looks like they want to put a few nails in our coffin. Nice guys.

  17. There is science, there is fiction, there is fantasy, and there is fraud. I share RR’s view that it is pretty easy to ‘sus out a snake’.

    The key aspects of the fraudulent phenotype are,

    (1) run-on interlocked ideas.

    (2) secret process, but open for anyone to see.

    (3) patents pending, applications old. The “rejected” status never acknowledged. They’re still pending.

    (4) Almost always requiring more funding.

    (5) the words “breakthrough”, “unconventional”, “new science”, and the adjectives “amazing”, “complete”, “total”, “stunning”, “vastly”, are used freely.

    (6) always ‘short on detail’, but quick to seguey to novel-length expose’s about how the future development will solve global warming, financial crises, pollution of environment, suppression of this week’s pet toxin, bountiful byproducts, simplicity of design, suitability for home and small business operation, independence from Big Oil, Government, Industry, (and one infers Science)

    To be honest, Robert, I wouldn’t go anywhere near as deep into “researching” a fraud as you do. I mean, let’s be reasonable … after awhile, when all stinky fish have made you sick, do you really need to eat another one to confirm the hypothesis?

    To me it is obvious. When the science is thin (which it NEVER needs to be), the frosting is thick (which it also never needs to be), when the claims are long, but the real-world tests short … then it is “a stinky fish”.

  18. Inventories are being drawn down by 1.4M bpd,and OPEC might just be stupid enough to cut production again.

    OPEC overdid it last time, and I expect them to overdo it next time. The last time they cut production, they were far too slow to bring excess production back online when prices skyrocketed. Given the collapse in oil prices, imagine how they will drag their feet the next time they get prices up.


  19. Ow, come on, Benny, we’ve been through this before. Among multiple other issues, your fuzzy math: 10% of 85 mbd is going to give us 10 mbd spare capacity! Way to go!

    How on earth oil will stage anything but a dead cat bounce when industrial output falls by 15 percent, and trade falls by even more, is beyond me. Oil for what? To bath in?
    It’s simple, really. All you need is oil producers to cut more than consumers are cutting. Some producers (Mexico, Venezuela, etc.) are cutting through sheer incompetence. Others (Canadian tar sands) are getting priced out of the market. And then there is OPEC…

    Go ahead, invest against oil, if you can afford to take a bath…

    If global trade falls 20 percent, and industrial production falls 15 percent, how much does oil consumption fall?
    Well who knows? The data certainly suggests that the drop is not that steep. But I guess Benny the Sage does not let the facts get in the way of a good story…

    And how do you like our OPEC buddies? The global economy is tanking, in desperate need of a boost. But OPEC looks like they want to put a few nails in our coffin. Nice guys.
    Let me see if I got this straight: you expect OPEC to churn out oil, hurting their own economies, just to help out their allies in the West? What, are you confusing OPEC with Santa Claus? They may be nice guys, but nobody is that nice.

    Ever heard of what economists call the rational producer? You know, the guy who considers his own interests?

  20. How about paying your advertising and trade show vendors that you stiffed for thousands of dollars back in 2007.

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