Snubbed by mainstream, scrappy scientist sues

The Palm Harbor man wants the courts to force his detractors to take his ideas seriously.

Published May 9, 2007

TAMPA - Ruggero Santilli is frustrated.

After a long career as an academic, the Palm Harbor physicist says he isn't getting the respect he deserves.

He accuses other scientists of plagiarizing and distorting his writings. He says they dismiss his ideas for a new form of clean, efficient energy as fringe science. Meanwhile, the problem he aims to correct - global warming - is only growing worse.

So what is a beleaguered academic to do?

Santilli sues.

Twice he has filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Tampa, asking a judge to order his foes to write lengthy apologies in scientific journals. He has asked for more than a million dollars in damages and legal fees.

Santilli, 72, is also embroiled in a lengthy legal battle in Hillsborough Circuit Court and has filed lawsuits in Italy.

In most of these cases, Santilli refuses to hire an attorney and represents himself in court, known as acting pro se in legal parlance. This leads to some unusual filings, including a 324-page complaint in federal court filled with mathematical formulas, scientific theories and references to academic journals.

Another time, Santilli put a proposed settlement into the public record - a legal faux pas - in which he asked the editors of Infinite Energy magazine to devote a cover story to his latest project, an alternative fuel he calls Magnegas.

Santilli is unapologetic about his refusal to hire a lawyer, signing his motions as "a U.S. citizen in his own understanding of the law, under the protection of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." But the rambling nature of his cases typically lead judges to dismiss them.

Still, Santilli perseveres. He said a desire to clear the record, for himself and society, forced him down this litigious path.

"It is inevitable I bring these issues to court because there is no other way, " he said. "That is the American way."

Academic clashes

Santilli grew up in a small town outside Rome. He was educated in Italy, at the University of Naples and the University of Turin. After a stint as a professor of nuclear physics at the A. Avogadro Institute in Turin, he was invited to teach at the University of Miami in 1967.

From there, Santilli went on to posts at the University of Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Santilli said he left Harvard after "horrendous" fights with his colleagues over his work. "The primary reason was there was too much politics."

The crux of their disagreement is complex, but Santilli said it was caused by his insistence they needed to look beyond Albert Einstein's theories in order to come up with a new method for creating energy.

To the academic establishment, Santilli said, those ideas were heresy. "I don't want to use strong words, but it is my opinion that we are living now in scientific obscurity that dwarfs by comparison the scientific obscurity imparted by the Vatican during Galileo's time."

So Santilli and his wife, Carla, left Massachusetts in 1990 and settled in Palm Harbor, where he works as an entrepreneur. His latest project is a machine that converts liquid waste into fuel, which Santilli calls Magnegas.

Magnegas is created when liquid waste, such as pig manure or engine oil waste, is passed through an electric arc and heated to 12, 000 degrees. The Magnegas bubbles to the surface and the liquid is expelled.

At his Tarpon Springs workshop, Santilli keeps a Chevrolet Suburban that runs on Magnegas. He said he has sold several of the recycling machines abroad, and the city of Dunedin expressed interest, although officials there haven't gone beyond preliminary discussions, said Douglas Hutchens, the city's director of public works.

It was the invention of Magnegas that led to Santilli's legal fight in Hillsborough County.

'He's a scrapper'

In 1998, Santilli was hired as a consultant by a Tampa company called EarthFirst. They parted ways in 2001, according to court documents. Shortly after, Santilli sent a copy of a letter to several of the company's prospective clients threatening to sue EarthFirst for allegedly violating his patent for Magnegas.

Several clients refused to do business with EarthFirst after receiving the letter, court papers showed. EarthFirst sued Santilli, saying he violated a noncompete clause he signed. They also accused him of libel.

A Hillsborough judge granted EarthFirst a temporary injunction against Santilli. After nearly five years, the case continues.

Mark Ragusa, a Tampa lawyer who represented the defendants in Santilli's first federal lawsuit described him as tenacious.

"He's a scrapper, " he said. "He certainly files a lot of pleadings."

In that case, Santilli sued a group of Italian physicists, the Libero Istituto Universitario Internazionale and the editors of Infinite Energy, among others. He accused them of fraud and plagiarizing his equations.

His second federal case, which is very similar, is ongoing.

While Santilli's arguments can be hard to follow, judges traditionally give a lot of leeway to clients who represent themselves in court. Ragusa said he filed several motions to dismiss the case before U.S. District Judge James Whittemore agreed.

"He certainly cost our clients a lot of money trying to dismiss a lawsuit we saw as frivolous, " Ragusa said of Santilli.

Ex-colleagues mum

Even if his cases are dismissed, Santilli considers his effort a victory because his court filings spread his message to the scientific community. He does not trust the news media to present an unbiased view of his work.

"You call the famous professor and the famous professor will say, 'Oh, Professor Santilli is a weirdo. His science is not accepted by the establishment, ' " Santilli said. "The news media is subservient to the scientific authority."

Finding people willing to discuss Santilli isn't easy. Several former colleagues declined to be interviewed, saying they feared being sued.

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com