Jul 09 2007

Salt Water Fuel? Be Very Skeptical

These news reports of Florida resident John Kanzius discovering how to use salt water as fuel have been circulating around the web and I thought it would make a good follow up to Friday’s post.

Kanzius, who claims to be working on a cure for cancer using radio frequency heat induction of nano-particles, now claims that he has stumbled upon the solution to the world’s energy problem. Incidentally, the cancer treatment (I would hesitate to call any treatment a cancer cure as if it cures all cancers) is a legitimate idea, but as far as I can tell not new or unique to Kanzius. He seems to be at least a competent engineer and built a radio-frequency induction device. When a test tube filled with salt water was placed in the field and ignited a yellow flame appears at the top of the test tube, as if the salt water were burning.

Local News Is Terrible

I never watch local news, unless it is in such a context, and increasingly that means on Youtube or a similar site. But when I am forced to watch a local news report I am reminded of why I never do – it stinks. I watched three different local news reports on Kanzius and his burning water and they were all virtually identical – gushing speculation about water as fuel, scientists are baffled, etc. There was no in depth explanation of what is actually happening, and not a hint of skepticism. They had a story to tell – an unassuming genius solves the energy crisis by making a simple observation – the facts were not going to get in the way of this story. It’s one of the few stories (thematically speaking) they know how to tell. Let’s see, story formula #6: Lone Genius; pull up the template, plug in the details, and we’re done.

The internet is good for spreading such nonsense, but also for allowing legions of the not-hopelessly-gullible to point out all the obvious problems with this story. It also highlights why in cases like this, large numbers of intelligent amateurs are much better than the so-called professional journalists and treating these stories. When I see this it is easy to believe that the internet will kill traditional journalism, and good riddance.

Pesky Physics

A modicum of physics knowledge tells us, as I pointed out in my last post, that energy is not free – you cannot get energy from nothing. So whenever I see a demonstration like Kanzius’s burning salt water I ask – where is the energy coming from? That’s a good basic first step in dealing with any scientific claim dealing with energy.

Is the energy being released from chemical bonds (that’s the source of energy is gasoline and most fuels)? Is it nuclear, electromagnetic, solar, kinetic, thermal, or what? In this case it seems that the radio frequencies (RF) is separating the hydrogen and oxygen in the water which, when ignited, burns by turning back into water and producing a flame. Such a flame should be colorless, but the sodium in the salt water is probably providing the yellow color.

If this is true then has Kanzius indeed figured out how burn water as fuel? No.

A fuel, by definition, is a source of energy – energy is stored in it and can be released by burning. Fuels that already exist in a form that contains the energy that will be released in burning are true sources of energy, like fossil fuels. Others need to be made, like hydrogen for hydrogen fuel cells. (Hydrogen needs to be made only because there is no significant source of free hydrogen on earth.) Therefore we have to expend energy to create hydrogen, then we get a portion of that energy back when we burn it. So hydrogen and similar fuels are energy carriers, not energy sources.

It is clear in the case of Kanzius’s technique that salt water is not an energy source. It is not even an energy carrier, like manufactured hydrogen. It is rather just an energy conduit. The ultimate energy source is the electricity that is running the RF creator. The machine turns electricity from the grid into radio waves that carry this energy to the water molecules, splitting them apart and putting them into a higher energy state. They can then be burned back into the lower energy water state, getting back some of the energy that went into splitting them apart.

Of course, the second law of thermodynamics states that when transferring energy from one state to another some energy must be lost. You can never reach 100% efficiency. So the whole process is a complete waste, as far as energy is concerned.

Even still, the process itself is interesting. Salt is playing some role as a catalyst apparently, since water without salt will not work. This may turn into an efficient method of creating hydrogen for fuel cells or for desalination (which was what it was originally designed to accomplish).

Conclusion

I find it odd that Kanzius himself cannot make this basic analysis of his claims. The glaringly obvious question of where is the energy coming from was not even addressed. As usual we can only speculate about motives.

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