Water: Alternative Fuel of the Future?

Can simple water really be burned to solve our energy problems?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Environment

Skeptoid #87
February 12, 2008
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Water for Fuel
Artwork: Nathan Bebb

Today we're going to pour a few drops of water into our car's fuel tank, and triple our mileage; we're going to electrolyze hydrogen from our municipal water supply and run our house; and with a cup of seawater — the most plentiful substance on earth — we're going to extract energy and solve the world's energy crisis. For today's topic is the use of simple water as an alternative fuel source.

If you've listened to the news at all over the past couple of years, you've probably heard several trumpeted headlines about energy being extracted from water. If you have an email account you've probably heard that the government and oil companies have been suppressing the fact that energy stored in water can power your automobile. Open any web browser and do a Google search, and you'll find claim after claim for energy from water. It's clean, it's free, it has no carbon emissions, and science just hasn't caught onto it yet because of some establishment conspiracy of silence.

The most recent one I heard of was a device to electrolyze water using the power from your car battery. The resulting gas is then inserted into your cylinder along with the fuel, dramatically increasing your engine's power, and thus reducing the need to burn gasoline. Since car engines create 12V electricity, there is an endless supply of juice to power the electrolysis. Fox News even broadcast a story about two guys using this same technology to power a Hummer for the US military, burning nothing but water. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?

Not too long ago on the news there was another claim. A retired engineer doing some sort of home-brewed cancer research found that seawater, when electrolyzed by radio waves, could be made to burn. The television reporters made all sorts of excited noise about this: Seawater is available everywhere for free, burning it produces almost no harmful emissions, and the heat from the reaction can be used to generate electricity or do just about anything else.

Can water really be used as a fuel? Has the solution to all our problems always been right under our very nose? Let me ask a different question: Is the idea that something so obvious could have gone unnoticed for so long absurd enough to warrant a healthy dose of skepticism?

Well, the short answer is yes, they do warrant skepticism; and no, they do not represent any new solution to any problem that nobody's ever thought of before. All of these miracle systems consume more energy than they create, and are reported by the television networks with no critical analysis of the bogus claims being made.

Let's start with the seawater guy. John Kanzius was tinkering with an idea he had to target cancer cells with metallic particles, and then blast them with radio frequencies to kill the cancer. During the course of his research, someone noticed condensation inside the test tube and they decided to try desalinating water. It worked; the intense radio waves caused water to electrolyze, releasing hydrogen. When ignited, this reaction could produce a continuous flame; and, of course, a flame can be used to do things like generate electricity. Different solutions and salinities produced different colors. Rustum Roy, a Penn State University chemist, called this electrolysis by radio waves "the most remarkable [discovery] in water science in 100 years." The electrical power required to generate the radio waves far exceeded the heat output of the flame, but that was never the point. Somehow a warped description of this reached the media, who take no interest in a subject beyond a newsworthy angle. They irresponsibly reported that seawater was being made to burn and produce energy, completely neglecting all the important questions surrounding energy production. The media even took Roy's statement out of context and made it sound like he was proclaiming that this was the most remarkable energy generation discovery in 100 years, which is not what he said at all. In short, all Kanzius developed was an extraordinarily inefficient way to produce a small flame using tremendous amounts of electrical power from the grid. The water is not a fuel at all; it is merely a catalyst in one unusual method of converting radio waves to heat. Some people hear the explanation and say "Well, yeah, but it's brand new, they could work on it and make it more efficient, and then who knows the potential?" Would that that were so. Thermodynamics rules that even if the process could be made 100% efficient (which by itself is an absurd proposition), the heat output of the flame could never exceed the amount of energy coming from the electricity used to create the radio waves. By the way, John Kanzius' cancer research is still proceeding.

So how about the car engine thing? Use power from the battery — which is constantly being recharged by the engine — to electrolyze water, thus producing a volatile gas that can be added to the fuel mixture to substantially boost performance. The water tank needs to be refilled just like the gas tank does, and so in this case, the water is actually being used as fuel. Right? Not right. Welders who have heard about these devices generally fall onto the ground laughing when they hear it. These claims state that the water is converted into oxyhydrogen, the same gas used in water torches, and also known as Brown's gas. A water torch is a type of welding flame that uses oxyhydrogen as fuel. Oxyhydrogen is a gas that consists of hydrogen gas and oxygen gas in a 2:1 ratio, the same as water, but chemically separate from one another. Think of the space shuttle's main engines, which also use hydrogen mixed with an oxidizing agent. Recall the size of the explosion when the Challenger's main tank blew. Oxyhydrogen does have huge explosive potential, which is why it's such a great fuel for water torches. Water torches have been around for a long time, so there is nothing remotely new or inventive about this concept. It has never been of interest to automotive engineers because making the oxyhydrogen fuel consumes more energy than can be produced by burning it. Welding is not the art of energy efficiency, so this is not a problem for the welding industry. It would be a huge problem for the automotive industry, which cannot afford to spend more energy creating oxyhydrogen than could be produced burning it. The same goes for your car's engine. If your battery starts with a full charge, your car may indeed run more efficiently with one of these devices for a short time, until the battery is drained enough that the engine must take on the additional load of recharging it. And then there's that pesky law of thermodynamics again. It will never be possible to gain more energy burning the oxyhydrogen than it takes to create the oxyhydrogen. You can borrow energy from the burning gasoline to keep the reaction going, but now you are running less efficiently than you could under gasoline alone.

And so, alas for all such bogus claims of water as a fuel. Study them critically, and you'll find that they all represent net losses of energy. Be assured that engineers know more about physics than television reporters.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Now, it's important to note that some of these stories do have merit. Bruce Crower, a lifelong tinkerer of racing engines in southern California, has invented what he calls the steam-o-lene engine. It's a conventional four-stroke internal combustion engine, with an additional two strokes tacked onto the end. Crower knows that the biggest waste byproduct of internal combustion engines is heat, and he decided to recover some of that by putting it to work in an additional power stroke. At the end of the engine's normal fourth stroke, which ejects the fuel exhaust, Crower injects a tiny amount of water. That water instantly flashes to steam inside the hot cylinder, creating a tremendously powerful fifth stroke. The sixth stroke ejects the steam, which goes to a passive condenser where it returns to water. Unlike the other examples we've discussed, Crower's system actually works. Crower understands that the water is not the fuel. The heat is the fuel. Water is simply a catalyst for converting that heat into kinetic energy. What's more, enough of the heat is recovered that you can eliminate the heavy radiator and cooling systems, and when running the engine is cool enough to touch with your bare hand.

So please, the next time you read about a new water fuel in the newspaper or hear about it on the news — which you probably won't have to wait long for — apply some skepticism. Find the data the reporters didn't want to dilute the impact of their headline. Demand a reasonable standard of evidence. Be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Allen, M. "The Truth About Water-Powered Cars: Mechanic's Diary." Mechanic's Diary. Popular Mechanics, 3 Jul. 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2010. <http://www.popularmechanics.com/automotive/new_cars/4271579.html>

Bedard, P. "Run Your Car on Water." Car and Driver. 1 May 2009, May 2009.

Carney, D. "Six Strokes of Genius." Popular Science. 1 Jun. 2007, Volume 270, Number 6: 66.

Kondepudi, D. Introduction to Modern Thermodynamics. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008.

Liptak, B. Post-Oil Energy Technology: The World's First Solar-Hydrogen Demonstration Power Plant. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008. 112.

Wilson, E. "Water on Fire Makes Scientists Burn." Chemical and Engineering News. 24 Mar. 2008, Volume 86, Number 12: 49.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Water: Alternative Fuel of the Future?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 12 Feb 2008. Web. 21 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4087>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 78 comments

Water is not a fuel. Electrolysis consumes more energy than can be obtained from the burning of the resulting hydrogen. It's simple thermodynamics.

Alvaro Ibañez, Mexico City
March 10, 2012 11:37am

I have a commercial hydrogen generator in my lab that produces the gas by electrolysis. It separates hydrogen from oxygen using a palladium membrane. You pour water into its reserviour, plug it in to an eletrical outlet, and out comes pure hydrogen at 60 psi (4 bar).

Is humanity's energy shortage solved?!?

Sorry, no. The device consumes 800 watts of electrical power, and probably returns 80 watts (gross estimate) power equivalent of hydrogen.

As many commenters have already said, physics offers no free lunches.

PS. Search "Parker hydrogen generators" for info about the device. We use hydrogen for scientific instruments and for chemical reactions.

RIchard Blaine, Updatate NY
March 25, 2012 12:32pm

You could sell the O2 to the gym next door Richard. Fill a vacuumed hydrogen bottle to 4 bar O2 and...you could sell it as antihomeopathium.

May I add, physicists dont offer free lunches either. Electrochemists have very deep pockets as well.

Mud, In a Sinful shire and a Sinful state, Oz
June 16, 2012 1:46am

My car runs on water. No, I don't "burn" the water. The Bonneville Power Administration runs the water through dams, generating electricity, and sending it out over the grid. Since I live in the Pacific northwest, my electric grid gets its electricity from Bonneville's dams. My car runs on electricity from the grid.

The water power is essentially never ending since the sun keeps the hydrologic cycle moving, and will for a few more billion years.

No over-unity engines, but electric motors are very efficient and have oodles of torque, so that my water-powered car accelerates like a bat out of L.

I guess you could say that my car runs off of thermonuclear energy, since that's how the sun works, but it's much more fun to say that my car is water powered.

Daniel, Spokane, WA
February 17, 2013 12:51pm

You could make it even more fun by admitting your car and the water it runs of are made of star dust from many many different stars.

Thanx for that Daniel, i hear nothing but bleating everytime someone mentions electric cars. Its good to read the testimony of a pleased owner.

Even if the pleasure is bragging rights!

You'll be happy to know that travelling to a nuclear powered (or contributed grid) the car changes to steam powered. When on a solar grid, your car is powered (in half) by moving holes around.

My ancient falcon is powered on prayer.

Everyone starts praying when I drive!

Mud, Sin City, Oz
March 21, 2013 6:12pm

In theory it could be possible that hydrogen-oxygen mix would increase the efficiency of a gasoline or diesel combustion engine, which are known for their poor efficiency.

Scheptoid, Moonbase Alpha
September 29, 2013 12:22pm

a car alternator can easaly produce 150 amps+, to produce hho gas to run a car needs only about maximum of 25 amps. Was Stanley Meyer's beach bugy a fake? no it was not. did he put secretly petrol in his car from a hidden fuel
tank? NO. A fellow NZ runs a motorbike on water is he also a fake? a philipino farmer has 5 cars that runs on water,another fake? in Japan a whole car fleet uses only water as fuel, an other fake?
My complements of all other highly lntelligent clever comments
thank you George nsw

george berko, sydney australia nsw
November 5, 2013 11:07pm

George, you're serious right! LOL

Paul Rybak, Topton, NC
November 23, 2013 1:06pm

I think this would be a good alternative fuel, because gas is just killing us, soon we will have no petroleum and what will we do?
we might as well find a new source now before it happens! I want my descendants to live long times!!!

Lil Tuck, lakeland
December 3, 2013 10:23am

Although I am intrigued and excited by the idea of getting more power out of the heat loss present in an engine, adding water to the combustion chamber is a terrible idea. Yes, it flashes to steam and can get an additional stroke; but water is not miscible with oil and is a catalyst for oxidation.

Engine oils are not robust enough to withstand the sheer amount of oxidation that would occur in an engine operating under these conditions. Oxidation can also lead to corrosion issues and adding water to flash in this system could easily reduce the lifetime of the engine. For anyone considering doing this, I highly recommend staying away from it.

Kevin, San Francisco, CA
May 20, 2014 11:13am

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