At the entrance to the International Academy of Science, a sign on a gate welcomes a visitor to “Science Mountain” — which is odd, because the area outside Independence is neither mountainous nor particularly known for scientific research.
A few digits are punched into a keypad, and the gate swings open. Then a visitor drives on a winding road flanked by woods and culminating in a gaping maw in the ground.
The road leads into the mouth of an old limestone quarry, down a dimly illuminated concrete ramp under the earth and into a parking space near a door, which is protected by two smiling women, dressed in black, their arms folded. “Welcome to the International Academy of Science,” they say in unison.
They lead the way into the underground complex, past an aquaponics lab where a few young men in lab coats tinker with bubbling vats containing aquatic plants and fish. Then, further down, past a man-made waterfall and an automobile covered with decals, there is a modest office. Inside sits a white-haired man with rosy cheeks named Roger E. Billings.
Billings founded the unusual, unaccredited, underground institute 20 years ago and dreamed up its curriculum as well as the degree it offers — the “doctor of research.” Billings himself became the school’s first graduate.
But a self-awarded degree isn’t the only odd element on Billings’ résumé. He has earned a living as a magician and is also prophet and patriarch of his own church.
Not surprisingly, Billings is known as an eccentric man with rather grandiose notions of the world and his place in it. But there are people who take Billings and his dreams seriously — particularly when it comes to his messianic vision for a simple and common atom.
Since he was a junior high school science student, Billings has pursued hydrogen as the clean-burning fuel of the future. His impressive claims include converting a car to run on the fuel as a high school science project, driving a hydrogen-powered Cadillac in Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural parade and, in Pennsylvania in 1991, unveiling the world’s first hydrogen-fuel-cell car.
In July 2003, Time magazine hyped the country’s hydrogen future in an otherwise gloomy story about the nation’s energy woes and dubbed Billings “Dr. Hydrogen.”
The affable 57-year-old holds many patents, on things from hydrogen devices to computer networking gadgets and Ethernet technology.
But Roger Billings’ biggest and most fascinating invention may be his own persona.
When he was just 14 years old, Billings watched his high school science teacher fill a balloon with hydrogen, tie it off with a string and set the string on fire. The balloon drifted upward and then exploded. The teacher in the Provo, Utah, classroom then wrote on the blackboard: “Hydrogen plus oxygen yields water and energy.”
For Billings, it was a revelation. “The idea of fire resulting from the creation of water seemed like magic. Here was a better way to power the world,” Billings writes in his self-published book The Hydrogen Worldview.
Billings wondered if he could make a car run on the fuel, and he persuaded his father to donate an old green Model A Ford pickup. After many failed attempts, Billings — with his little brother, Lewis, as his assistant — converted the truck to run on hydrogen and won his high school science fair his senior year.
In 1972, as a student at Brigham Young University, Billings entered the National Urban Vehicle Design Competition, in which students from all over the country would meet for a showdown in Detroit. He converted a Volkswagen Beetle, using water-induction technology to control backfiring problems associated with hydrogen cars. Because his car actually sucked in and burned a small amount of pollutants from the air —leaving the air cleaner, he claimed — he won the clean-air category of the contest and earned some media attention.
He paid for school by moonlighting as a magician in clubs around Provo. His illusions impressed a fellow student, Tonja Anderson, who had also been raised Mormon and had come from the same high school — they’d both also been high school cheerleaders. But Tonja remembers that Billings’ hydrogen-powered Model A awed her even more than his card tricks. “Sometimes on a beautiful day I’d be going to class, and he’d show up in the Model A and say, ‘Let’s just go for a ride instead,'” Tonja recalls. “It was wonderful. The ride was smooth and nice. Every once in a while you’d hear a backfire.”
While they were still in college, the two married and had their first child. Then, Billings says, on the verge of graduating from BYU, he received a high-profile visitor who had flown in to look at his car: Bill Lear, inventor of the Learjet and founder of Lear Ziegler.
“I had an amazing stroke of good fortune,” Billings says. “Bill Lear came by the university, saw my hydrogen car and decided he wanted me to be his protégé.” Billings says when he asked Lear how much the position paid, Lear scoffed, offended, and told Billings that if he worked with Lear for two years, he’d quickly become a millionaire.
“So a week later he flew in, picked me up in his Learjet and took me home. And I actually lived in his home and followed him around,” Billings says.
Billings flushes with excitement as he cranks up the story to its surprise conclusion. “So three years later, I called up Bill Lear, told him I’d started a company [Billings Energy], the company had gone public and I was sending him $250,000 worth of stock,” Billings says. Lear refused. Billings insisted, telling the aviation expert, then in his late 70s, that he just wanted to pay him back somehow for all his help.
Billings leans in, his eyes gleaming, and, after a pause, continues. “And Bill Lear said to me, ‘Let me tell you something. A long, long time ago, I had this identical conversation with my mentor, and he told me if I wanted to pay him back, I should help someone else.’ Well, he had never said anything about a mentor. So I asked who was his mentor,” Billings says. “He said it was Thomas Edison.”
With Billings Energy doing well, Billings also founded a computer company and began going to trade shows. He took out patents on some computer technologies that would later lead to a long legal battle with computer company Novell — a battle that eventually gained him more attention than his hydrogen exploits.
One of Billings’ former BYU professors, who later worked for him as a consultant, remembers that his computer venture produced a reliable product — a compact machine with a good operating system. But Billings the inventor was far outshined by Billings the marketer. “Roger is one of the best salesmen that I have ever met in my entire life,” says Gordon Stokes, who saw Billings in action at trade shows. “Roger is so flamboyant. At a computer show once, he had the Billings computers in these really showy chrome cases, and he was standing in front of them in a long coat and a top hat doing magic tricks to draw a crowd.”
Billings and Tonja, meanwhile, moved their growing family to Utah, determined to build what they called the “Hydrogen Homestead.” Billings obtained a grant from the federal government to buy solar panels that could generate the hydrogen needed to run the house.
“The home proves you can run everything on hydrogen,” Billings says. In his book, he shows a color picture of Tonja in a ’70s-style tunic slicing lettuce in front of a hydrogen-powered kitchen range. The home was also equipped with a hydrogen fireplace log, a hydrogen barbecue grill, a hydrogen lawn tractor and a hydrogen-fueled Cadillac Seville.
“Before we moved in, we had this big, open house and we had mobs of people come through. After we moved in, people still wanted to keep going through it, so I always had to keep the house in showcase mode,” Tonja recalls. “Reporters would come over, and I’d show them how to cook a steak on the hydrogen grill.”
The couple lived in the Hydrogen Homestead for three years before Billings felt a spiritual calling to move to Missouri, Tonja says. The couple moved to the town of Gallatin, about an hour outside Kansas City, and built a home on the Grand River — near the legendary Mormon sacred spot known as Adam-ondi-Ahman. In the late 1830s, Mormon leader Joseph Smith led his followers there after they had been expelled from Jackson County. Smith singled out the 2-square-mile section and called it the sacred place where Adam would one day come back to talk to “his people.”
The Billings raised horses and German shepherds on their land, and Billings spoke about Mormon teachings on a local religious radio station for a time. But in the 1980s, he found that he no longer had faith in Mormonism, partly because he disagreed with the religion’s decision to turn its back on polygamy. Billings still has only one wife, but in a pamphlet called “The True Dream of Zion,” he supports the practice and says that God told him to leave the Mormon church.
Tonja left Mormonism as well, and in recent years Billings started his own Internet church: the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion. The church’s Web site identifies it as a nondenominational congregation that “follows the leadership of our Patriarch and Prophet, Dr. Roger E. Billings.”
According to news reports quoting court depositions in the patent-infringement lawsuit Billings filed against Novell in the 1990s, Billings had befriended a man named Ken Asay, who billed himself as a reincarnation of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. Just before Asay died in a plane crash in the early 1980s, Billings reportedly testified, he had called Billings a prophet and named him as his successor.
Billings downplays the church, saying it doesn’t have a physical location. He calls it an “unchurch” and says his only teachings are religious broadcasts he does from the auditorium of his underground academy most Friday nights. Anyone can sign up by e-mail and get a password to listen to such energy-themed sermons as “Tapping the Power of Heaven” and “Hydrogen: Fuel of the Future.”
With his nontraditional underground college, Billings says he set out to provide an alternative to the normal educational experience. “I want to help other people the way Bill Lear helped me,” he says.
Billings counts off the high-profile scientists he says have served as board members for the academy: Willis Hawkins, a retired Lockheed executive; Alexei Tupolev, a Russian Academy of Sciences member and jet designer; and Olof Tegstrom, a Swedish consultant to the United Nations on alternative energy. The goal of the academy is to turn out what Billings calls “innoventors” — science and technology people who know enough about business and marketing to create their own companies.
Billings purchased a tract of land straddling Independence and Blue Springs that contained the huge abandoned limestone quarry — 8 million square feet of underground space. Then Billings argued with officials from the Missouri Board of Higher Education for five years to get permission to run his unaccredited school. “They told us no, you can’t do that in Missouri. You’ve got to have conventional classes, and you’ve got to be accredited,” Billings says. Finally, he prevailed.
According to the school’s Web site, students from all over, including Tonga and Russia, have come to attend the school. Last summer, Billings told The Lawrence Journal-World that his academy had an enrollment of 120 students, but he tells the Pitch that today it has about 25. On a recent afternoon, only a few students roamed the cavernous hallways of the school. Billings’ assistants show off living quarters that resemble hotel rooms, where some of the students live.
Professor Jay Potter — another recipient of the school’s “doctor of research” degree — tells the Pitch he was a student for seven years before he graduated last year. Potter, a self-employed computer consultant without a college degree, was living in California when a friend told him about the academy. Fascinated, he made a trip to Independence and signed up to attend the school. “This has been the best thing to ever happen in my life,” Potter says. “I can’t imagine a better place to work or to learn. The range of possibilities that opened up are breathtaking. Every day, there’s something new or something exciting.”
Potter says that some students come to the school with their own ideas or are offered the opportunity to work on research and development for Billings’ business ventures. Potter himself worked on Billings’ Acellus, a computer learning system designed to teach students math, science and other subjects. Other students have worked on Billings’ Ethernet devices now manufactured by his company, WideBand Inc., and some students have formed their own ventures to sell Billings’ products.
Potter says he came to the academy with a project of his own: a software cookbook. Billings helped him fix some problems with his “One Million Recipes” program, and now it’s being sold at Wal-Mart, he says. “He helped me negotiate contracts with distributors, and now we’ve turned it into a little business that generates me royalties.”
Because of the academy’s unorthodox approach and lack of accreditation, some have criticized the school. A former friend of Billings reportedly gave a deposition in the Novell case calling the school a “sham” and saying that only children without high school diplomas attend. But Potter tells the Pitch that the students who attend are looking for the academy’s style of learning and know they’ll be studying in a cave. “We warn them ahead of time,” he says.
Now Billings manages WideBand Inc. and Acellus, with many former students and all nine of his children acting as employees and distributors. He also peddles vitamins through a company called Earth Touch Inc. Billings says his vitamins are special formulas based on the work of dentist Emanuel Cheraskin, whose book Billings ordered after watching an infomercial.
“I went to Wal-Mart, and I realized I couldn’t find half the stuff he recommended — for example, chelated calcium. So I started my own little business. It’s really just a hobby thing,” Billings says.
But not everyone is buying what Billings is selling. “Roger is very, very bright, but he’s not as big of a deal as he says he is,” says Stokes, Billings’ former professor and computer consultant. Billings’ 10-year patent-infringement lawsuit against computer giant Novell, which he gave up on last August, involved a patent Billings obtained on concepts that had been around for at least five years before Billings patented them, Stokes says. “He never should have gotten the patent,” he says.
Billings’ long-lasting lawsuit regularly made news, and Novell’s attorneys delighted in making him look like a kook — telling reporters, for example, that Billings lived in a cave and espoused polygamy. In fact, several online encyclopedias with blurbs about Billings’ church contend — incorrectly, according to Billings — that he has 1,000 followers who believe in “multiple lives” and taking other men’s spouses as “celestial wives.”
But Billings has a way of inviting doubt. He has told several versions of the Lear story, for example. In a 1984 story in Forbes, he told a reporter that Lear had hired him as an engineer, then changed his mind about letting Billings work on hydrogen research, so Billings had quit in a huff. In the story he told the Pitch, Bill Lear mentored him for two years. His wife says they stayed with the Lears for about a month. Bill Lear died in 1978, but his son, John Lear, says he has never heard of Billings. “Should I have?” he asks. And John Lear has never heard the story about Thomas Edison acting as his father’s mentor. “And I’ve heard a lot of stories,” he says, chuckling.
Some alternative-fuel experts dispute Billings’ hydrogen credentials as well, especially his claim to having created the first hydrogen-fuel-cell car. “GM did that in the ’70s — it was this big, clunky thing,” says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis. “I know he [Billings] was a name and did some things some years ago, but he’s not a big player now,” Sperling says.
Last spring, Billings announced plans to buy the old Farmland Industries site, 450-plus acres off Kansas Highway 10 near Lawrence. He signed a letter of intent for a multimillion-dollar deal to purchase the property, announcing that he was going to create a factory that would manufacture hydrogen fuel cells. “We feel like we’re real close to doing it,” he told The Lawrence Journal-World at the time. Officials from Farmland said they were optimistic about the transaction.
But the deal fell through. Billings says he was unable to meet the requirements for mitigating the extensive environmental damage at the site in time to satisfy the bankruptcy court overseeing the sale for Farmland. “We worked night and day with the state in order to try to get it done, but in the end there just wasn’t enough time,” Billings says.
Billings could hardly believe it when President George W. Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union address, announced that the U.S. government would provide $1.2 billion in funding for research to develop hydrogen-fuel-cell cars, houses and companies, including money to develop the infrastructure to support a hydrogen-powered society. The announcement was followed by pledges from GM and BMW to have hydrogen cars on the road within the next 10 years and lots of media coverage hyping hydrogen as the fuel of the future. “With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free,” Bush said.
With backing like that, Billings says, the hydrogen-car movement may finally convince the rest of us of the fuel’s potential. Bolstered by the success of WideBand, the networking venture that’s his biggest moneymaker, Billings last year revived his old company, Billings Energy. The old energy firm, having been taken over by stockholders in the mid-’80s, had folded.
But will Billings be able to take advantage of the rest of the country catching up to his vision of a hydrogen-powered world? The demise of the Farmland deal surely didn’t help Billings’ reputation, which had already taken a hit in recent years from the contentious Novell lawsuit and from his own penchant for hyperbole. But when he talks about a world where fuel is cheap and clean and wars aren’t fought over oil, it’s hard not to get caught up in some of the eccentric inventor’s enthusiasm for the idea that hydrogen will transform the world — and that Billings may be a part of it.
Hydrogen, however, has its own reputation problems, stemming mostly from the iconic explosion of the airship Hindenburg in 1937. Who would want to drive a car that could burst into flames?
But the kind of hydrogen cars that Billings builds don’t have a propensity to blow up. They’re electric cars that use fuel cells, drawing their electric power from reactions involving hydrogen. No hydrogen is sparked or explodes the way gasoline is ignited in today’s internal-combustion engines.
In the fuel-cell car, hydrogen atoms are electrochemically split and then combined with oxygen atoms, producing electricity, heat and water. The electricity is then used to power the car. But part of the challenge for engineers is to find efficient ways to store the hydrogen atoms before they enter the fuel cell. One of Billings’ insights was to fill his hydrogen storage tank with metal hydride, a combination of metals in powdered form. This enables more hydrogen to be compressed into the tank, allowing a driver to go 300 miles before refueling. The powder also makes the storage inherently safer in a collision.
The second-greatest challenge to hydrogen power is the relatively difficult fight it puts up in being “mined.” Billings wants to see coal gasification plants built to create hydrogen from coal, a plentiful and cheap resource in the United States. He says that’s the way to go until a cleaner way to make hydrogen can be found.
He still plans to build a plant to manufacture fuel cells in the metro area. One of the obstacles right now to widespread use of hydrogen cars is the lack of infrastructure, and Billings dreams of Kansas City being the first city in the country to show that it can be done. He says he has hired consultants to help him try to figure out how to extract hydrogen from a rare underground hydrogen deposit that was discovered in the 1980s by a wildcat driller seeking natural gas. Billings Energy now owns the site. It’s a long shot, but it makes for a good story.
Billings leans back in his chair and waves his arm as if he could magically convert Kansas City to hydrogen with one gesture. His eyes shine again as he envisions his dream city.
Anyone in the metro area, he says, could visit Billings to have his or her car converted to run on hydrogen. Local car dealerships would start converting old cars and selling new hydrogen cars. Every service station in Kansas City would have three types of pumps: regular, diesel and hydrogen. “You just pull up, fill it up with hydrogen,” Billings says. “I think we’ll get a lot of incentives and credits for people to do it.” He smiles widely.
“If we can do it, it’ll make Kansas City the showplace for hydrogen for the whole world,” Billings says.