Jun 16 2008

The Car That Runs on Water

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Comments: 18

This story keeps coming back, and it is likes we will continue to see it into the future. The car that runs on water has become almost a technological icon – like the hover car or the cure for cancer. Except we will never see it because it simply is not possible.

Here is the latest iteration of this scam/pseudoscience. Japanese company Genepax claims that is has a car that runs on water. Reuters reports:

“The car will continue to run as long as you have a bottle of water to top up from time to time,” Genepax CEO Kiyoshi Hirasawa told local broadcaster TV Tokyo.

“It does not require you to build up an infrastructure to recharge your batteries, which is usually the case for most electric cars,” he added.

The Reuters article was pretty light on details. It was also light on skepticism (i.e basic journalism). It failed to inform readers that such claims have been made numerous times before and that the scientific consensus is that such claims violate the second law of thermodynamics.

Cryptogon reports that on June 12th the company held a press conference, adding:

The basic power generation mechanism of the new system is similar to that of a normal fuel cell, which uses hydrogen as a fuel. According to Genepax, the main feature of the new system is that it uses the company’s membrane electrode assembly (MEA), which contains a material capable of breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen through a chemical reaction.

Though the company did not reveal the details, it “succeeded in adopting a well-known process to produce hydrogen from water to the MEA,” said Hirasawa Kiyoshi, the company’s president. This process is allegedly similar to the mechanism that produces hydrogen by a reaction of metal hydride and water. But compared with the existing method, the new process is expected to produce hydrogen from water for longer time, the company said.

Here is the problem – it takes energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When you then burn the hydrogen by recombining it with oxygen you generate some of that energy back. But the laws of thermodynamic say that the energy you get back must be less than the energy you put in. You simply cannot get energy out of this process.

Those who have claimed to have done so in the past fall into one of two broad categories: Either they were deceiving themselves through sloppy science or they were scam artists. In the former case the energy inputs and outputs were not measured accurately, or a source of energy input was missed, leading to the false conclusion that energy output exceeds input. In the latter case con artists are simply looking for investors for a product they know will never work. I do not know which category Genepax falls into.

The company claims that it is their membrane technology that allows for the splitting of hydrogen off water. But this does not explain where the energy is coming from. The word “catalyst” is thrown around a lot – but a catalyst just allows a reaction to run more quickly, it does not allow a reaction to go from a low energy state (water) to a higher energy state (hydrogen and oxygen). The company also says that the reaction is driven by a chemical reaction. It is possible for a chemical reaction to provide energy to split water – but then the fuel is the chemicals undergoing the reaction. What chemical might these be? How much is needed to fuel the car? Whey aren’t these chemicals already used as fuels? Since the company claims the car need only water and outputs only water it is unlikely they are fueling the car with large amounts of substances from which they are getting chemical energy. This is a good way to confuse the scientifically challenged, however.

What is most amusing about this story, other than the utter failure of the mainstream media to report it adequately, are some of the comments in the online article. Here are some gems:

For those who do not believe this (‘academic’ people especially)… get ready to be imperially f@cked when oil hits $200 a barrel. all I hear from them are moans that ‘it cannot be done’ while they offer no other solutions’. Fact is, you do not even know how many truths are kept away from you by the oil cartels. maybe a breakthrough was already created 20 years ago.
All this talk about a hoax is a little silly. Do you not think the reporters from Reuters didn’t at least check this thing out. I am sure they made sure that the person put water in the tank to make it run. And for thermodynamics it is mostly garbage. Do the galaxies spin based on thermodynamics.


A scam? So what.. If I can get down the road with this cheaper than I can with oil it has a market. We are looking at $ per mile and availability of fuel. The “real” fuel here may be in the form of a metallic reaction bar or other type of catylist but who really cares?

These were the basic types of gullible comments. Some talked about the “big oil” conspiracy to suppress any such technology, while others simply stated that we need an alternative to gasoline (as if needed it made it so). One commenter made a type of argument from authority – that the press reporting can be trusted (how naive). But the most simplistic idiocy came from those who said something to the effect – who cares if it’s a scam, as long as it works. Huh?

It was good to see a fair percentage of commenters who understood the physics and that such claims must be fraudulent. One commenter said it very well – “when will people learn that water is not fuel.” Exactly.

Reading the comments of such articles always gives me the sensation (at the risk of creating a false dichotomy) that people fall into two basic groups: those who understand science and basically trust the institutions of science, and those whose thinking is hopelessly muddled by conspiracy thinking, pseudoscientific ideology, and/or scientific illiteracy. Perhaps the internet, with its exquisite catering to niche markets, is exacerbating this divide – making skeptics into better skeptics while simultaneously feeding the conspiracy mongers and lunatic fringe. If true it will be interesting to see where this gets us.

One thing is for sure – wherever that is we won’t be getting there in a water-powered car.

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