Roger Billings is obsessed with the simplest of atoms. And he knows we will be, too, eventually.

Dr. Hydrogen 

Roger Billings is obsessed with the simplest of atoms. And he knows we will be, too, eventually.

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.

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