The “run your car on water” scam

Every crisis can also be viewed an opportunity, or so it seems. As many motorists are having trouble making ends meet with rising fuel (and food) prices, various websites are popping up (usually with affiliate schemes) that make tempting promises such as:

  • “…use water as fuel and laugh at rising gas costs…”
  • “double your mileage”
  • “…cooler running engine…”
  • “no knocking”
  • “one quart of water provides over 1800 gallons of HHO gas which can literally last for months”

You will find numerous websites if you google for “water fuel car” or similar terms. Mostly the websites that make these claims sell e-books and other kits with instructions on building your own hydrogen generator from glass jars, electrodes and tubes to hook up to your existing engine.

Such kits draw power from your car’s electrical system (the battery and the generator charging it) to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, which is then fed into the air intake of the engine, so the hydrogen-oxygen mixture will be burnt along the air/gasoline mixture in the car’s combustion chambers. How well can such a system really work?

If a a “water-engine” as described above were to produce extra power beyond the power obtained from burning gasoline it would violate fundamental laws of physics. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that no energy is ever lost or gained, it just changes form, such as chemical energy to heat when you burn wood or heat to mechanical energy in a steam engine. An engine that uses only liquid water to produce water vapour (i.e. water plus heat) in its exhaust while providing mechanical energy violates this law of energy balance. It outputs energy with no energy going it. It would be a perpetual motion engine, which is physically impossible.

The sad fact is, people who buy these systems usually have a very rudimentary understanding of science. They take these unverified claims at face value, or are at least prepared to give them the benefit of doubt and spend money on testing unverified claims.

The “water-fuelled car” in detail

To split water (H2O) into its constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen takes electric energy. While the engine is running that energy will come from a generator driven by the engine via a belt. Just like running with your headlights on or your radio blaring will cause your engine to work a bit harder and burn more fuel, so will an electrolytic “hydrogen generator” take its toll on your gas tank.

Assuming an efficient setup, about 50-70% of the electrical energy provided will end up as chemical energy in the explosive hydrogen-oxygen mixture fed back into the engine, the rest will just warm up the water. A gasoline engine manages to convert up to 20% of the chemical energy contained in its fuel into mechanical energy, which is then available for driving the wheels or a generator. That generator converts maybe 90% of its mechanical input into electrical power. Altogether this means that burning the hydrogen returns only around 1/10 of the power originally invested into generating the hydrogen from water. It’s like you just burnt 10 litres (or gallons) of fuel in order to avoid burning one litre (or gallon).

What this of course means is that a “water-powered car” actually burns more gasoline and gets worse mileage than an unmodified car. However, the output of the “hydrogen generator” is so small and its practical negative effect on fuel mileage is so minor, you are unlikely to actually notice that, even if you accurately measure fuel economy. For example, a setup that draws 3 amperes of current from your generator (as claimed in one of the websites we’ve studied) will only use 1/20 of one horsepower (3 A x 12 V = 36 W = 0.036 kW = 0.050 hp). The difference in fuel usage is smaller than the difference between say driving with a full or a half empty fuel tank, which also changes fuel economy as a heavier car takes more power to accelerate.

The advertised fact that the “water-powered car” uses so little water (“one quart lasts for months”) is actually a give-away that the system is a hoax. If you produced hydrogen at home from tap water and a solar panel on your roof and stored it in a pressurized tank in your car to run it on only hydrogen, you would find that the amount of water used to make the hydrogen is still in the same order of magnitude as the amount of gasoline used, maybe something like a third by volume (I’d have to look up the exact numbers on relative energy content of hydrogen and hydrocarbons). In a water car that uses virtually no water (no matter where the electricty to make the hydrogen came from) the hydrogen can not be making any significant contribution to running it because there’s too little of it!

Less pinking / knocking?

I don’t know how many of the people who sell these useless plans are simply ignorant about science and how many are fully aware they’re scamming people. In any case, their other claims are equally baseless as their claims about improved fuel economy. Hydrogen has a higher energy content but also much lower octane rating than gasoline because it burns faster, more violently. This means your engine is more likely to start knocking or “pinking” than when run on gasoline (or gasoline / ethanol mixtures), not less. This is a problem that BMW had a hard time dealing with when they converted the engine of a 7-series saloon car to run on hydrogen. In practice this problem doesn’t matter in a “water car” because those “hydrogen generators” output so little hydrogen that it makes almost no difference to the engine, unlike real hydrogen cars with hydride or high pressure hydrogen tanks.

Cooler running engine?

Also, a hydrogen / oxygen mixture does not burn “cooler” than a gasoline / air mixture. Ask the space shuttle designers: The only reason the space shuttle’s hydrogen-oxygen engine doesn’t melt itself is because it’s cooled with liquid hydrogen (at -253 C / -423 F). Hydrogen / oxygen flames burn so hot they can be used for cutting steel like butter. First, hydrogen release more energy per unit of weight than does gasoline. Secondly, while the oxygen used for burning gasoline in a car engine is diluted with nitrogen (which makes up 80% of the air we breathe), the ogygen / hydrogen mix from the generator has not been diluted with anything inert, which is another reason why it burns so hot.

The vater vapour in the “water car” exhaust has no cooling effect whatsoever, because it’s not derived from liquid water, hence there’s no cooling effect from evaporation heat. Again, in the “water car” setup it makes no difference because there’s too little hydrogen involved.

Summary

In reality a “water as fuel” car is a placebo. Technically it doesn’t make any noticable difference to the amount of gasoline you use per kilometre or mile, but it may change the way you think about driving. If you do see any drop in fuel usage, it may be simply that you’re thinking more about fuel usage because of the investment you’ve just made and now drive less aggressively than before and that can indeed result in a modest reduction. Beyond that, any claimed changes are either due to wishful thinking, a vivid imagination or a cruel hoax to deceive unsuspecting customers.

The only way you’ll really see a 50% drop in your monthly fuel bill is if you basically cut your driving in half or if you change to a significantly different kind of car, such as from a bulky V6 to an economical Toyota Prius.

The number one factor that affects fuel economy around town is weight: A lighter car uses less fuel. Don’t get a more powerful engine than you really need. A more efficient setup, such as a hybrid or a new clean diesel can make a big difference too. Use public transport, ride a bicycle or walk wherever you can. It’s good for your health too 🙂

UPDATE: Here is a good page that explains in more detail why the claims for “HHO” don’t add up (use Ctrl+A to mark the text as it’s difficult to read as dark text on dark background).

Media fall for “car that runs on water”

Nikkei and Reuters report about an announcement by Japanese company Genepax of a car that supposedly runs on only water. One litre will keep the car running at 80 km/h for about an hour, reports Reuters.

Genepax CEO Kiyoshi Hirasawa is quoted by Reuters as stating that the car requires no external inputs but water. As long as water is available, it will keep running.

Reuters states things a bit differently:

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.

The uncritical reports by these two sources barely scratch the surface of this story. Hydrogen is not an energy source, it’s an energy carrier as there are no natural sources of it on earth. It always has to be produced through physical or chemical processes that require external energy input of some source, either fossil natural gas or coal or biomass or electricity generated from some source.

The Genepax website does not shed much light on how the hydrogen is produced for their fuel cell. The description of their technology on the company website consists of all of two sentences and one diagram of a fuel cell.

If you produce hydrogen in a chemical reaction of metal hydride and water, you use up not only water, but also metal hydride. Typically, metal hydrides take a lot of energy to produce. Substances such as alkali metal hydrids or aluminium that easily release hydrogen when reacting with water consume huge amounts of electricity in their manufacture — hardly a case of “no external input”.

The car uses a 300W fuel cell, presumably only to supplement a conventional battery, as 0.3 kw is far too little drive a car. That fuel cell sells for about 2 million yen ($19,000), almost enough to buy a Toyota Prius (the base model of which costs 2.3 million yen here in Japan).

Even if the “hydrogen generator” could produce hydrogen indefinitely with no external input (otherwise known as a perpetuum mobile), 300W is not enough power to keep even a small car running at 80 kp/h. It would take at least tens of kW, or the output of maybe 50 of these fuell cells. The concludion is that the demo car ran on a set of batteries previously charged from the mains grid, with no assistance from the Genepax fuel cell that was either significant or sustainable.

While we are not sure about all he facts behind the announcement by Genepax (such as whether they happen to be selling stocks to science-challenged would-be investors right now), we’d suggest taking any of their announcements with considerably more than a pinch of salt.

The domain genepax.co.jp was registered only on May 8, 2008, a mere five weeks ago. That seems awfully recent for a company that claims to have spent years developing this technology.

Whichever way you look at it, the story quickly falls apart, but the journalists hardly seem to notice. With rising fuel prices people will be interested in such “news” and that seems to be all that matters.

Toyota Prius hybrid versus BMW diesel

The Sunday Times did a road test, driving a BMW 520d SE and a Toyota Prius from London to Geneva. The BMW used 49.3 litres of diesel, versus 51.6 litres of petrol (gasoline) used by the Prius.

While the BMW’s results are clearly respectable, the figures quoted in the Sunday Times article do not tell the whole story.

For a start, about 40% of the trip were on motorways, another 40% on B-roads and the rest in urban areas. A driving mix that includes only a token 20% of urban driving is hardly typical for usage patterns of most motorists in our largely urban / suburban societies (for example, 79% of the US population lives in urban areas, with most European countries having similar rates). This unusual mix seems almost purposely designed to ensure that the advantage of the hybrid drive train of the Prius would lie mostly idle: Driving at constant speed on a flat road, you are not going to see any real benefits from a hybrid system, which really thrives in stop-and-go rush hour traffic with lots of traffic lights, as most of us experience on the way to work or home.

Secondly, even with these skewed parameters, the BMW lost out on greenhouse gas emissions. It burnt 10.84 Imperial gallons (13 US gallons) of diesel, while the Prius used 11.34 Imperial gallons (13.6 US gallons) of gasoline. Because of diesel fuel’s 15% higher carbon content by volume, the BMW added 131 kg of CO2 to the atmosphere versus 120 kg by the Prius.

Personally, I see no reason why in the long-term efficient diesel engines can not be mated to a hybrid system and have the best of both worlds. Sure, it may not yet be cost-effective at current fuel prices, but things may look very different 10, 20 or 30 years down the road.

Japanese petrol (gasoline) prices to fall 25c per litre

Following political gridlock in the Japanese parliament, a “temporary” tax on petrol (gasoline) that has been in force for three decades after being renewed every couple of years is set to expire on 01 April 2008 (to readers outside of Japan: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke). As a result prices of petrol are set to fall by 25 yen per litre (about US$0.95 per gallon, EUR 0.16 per litre).

I’m utterly unimpressed by how both major Japanese parties have handled this conflict.

Fuel taxes in Japan consist of the basic fuel tax and a “temporary” but de-facto permanent surcharge. The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wanted to hold on to the surcharge, as well as to a peculiar rule that fuel taxes must only be used for road construction and repair. This road-use-only restriction was defended by the so-called “road tribe”, an informal group of politicians with cozy ties to construction companies which in turn support their election campaigns.

The opposition Democratic Party, which controls the less powerful Upper House of parliament, called for dissolving the fuel – road construction link, as well as abolishing the surcharge altogether and only keeping the basic fuel tax, as it was until the 1970s.

The two did not compromise in time before the set expiration date and so prices will fall from tomorrow. Most likely the Lower House, which is controlled by the LDP-led coalition, will override the Upper House about one month later and reimpose the higher tax rate. Meanwhile Prime Minister Fukuda offered to remove the road construction link from April 2009 in order to get the opposition to agree to an extension of the surcharge.

While motorists will welcome cheaper fuel, petrol stations are likely to collectively lose about US$200 million over night, as they hold stocks of some 800 million litres of petrol in their underground tanks on which the tax has already been paid and which will not be refunded to them. Motorists are likely to give their business to whatever petrol station that starts selling at the new low prices first, making it near impossible for other stations to pass on to the consumer the taxes these stations have already paid on stocks delivered before April.

To me it makes no sense to maintain the outdated restriction on how fuel taxes can be used, which serves primarily the interests of construction companies, not the general public. Japan as an aging society with a declining population will need more and more cash for supporting elderly people and their health care, not more and more roads. Why can’t taxes be used where they are needed the most? This pork barrel restriction should have been abandoned a long time ago!

On the other hand it would be irresponsible to cut fuel taxes while the government is running a huge budget deficit. It would just mean more red ink, piling up higher debts to be repaid by our children and grandchildren. Also, cheaper fuel today will do little to encourage consumers to switch to more economical cars or public transport and to cut their output of greenhouse gases. Japan is already way behind on its efforts to meet its obligations under the Kyoto climate treaty.

It would make more sense to maintain and even raise fuel taxes and use the revenue to subsidise CO2 conservation measures, from better home insulation to solar collectors for warm water and subsidies for hybrid cars. Thirty years from now the world will live on maybe half the crude oil output per year as today, shared amongst more consumers. Whatever country comes up with intelligent solutions for living with scarce and expensive oil will do best in the 21st century. Trying to sneak back into a “golden age” of cheap fuel is not the way to succeed.