Water: Alternative Fuel of the Future?
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.
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.
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