This morning while perusing my news feeds I saw this article lamenting the state of scientific ignorance and bald political grandstanding in Pakistan. The specific item that prompted this lambasting of an entire country is the claim by one individual to be able the fuel cars using water – and the near unanimous support of this character within the political and scientific realms – despite the physical impossibility of this feat.
I think the author of this article is quite correct in his condemnation of this person and those who support him who tout this technology as a solution to the country’s energy woes. That said I think he does his audience a disservice in not breaking down the claims more fully to explain why this “invention” is not all that it seems and why it will not act as a panacea for the dependence on fossil fuels and the deficit of energy that Pakistan endures.*
It is explained that you cannot run a car on water due to the fact that that it would require a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics. A law that is deemed so fundamental to the operation of the universe that it prompted this quote from a distinguished scientist:
“The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation. ”
But this is not the end of the story. For while the “inventor” and his supporters use the word “fuel” to refer to the water, it is a misnomer as we normally understand the word. A fuel is something that supplies energy, it stores energy that is created by one of any number of processes and enables it to be used to do work seconds, hours or millennia after the energy was first produced.
This is what fossil fuels are – the condensed energy of biological processes that occurred millions of years ago. We tap this energy and use it to run our cars, and depending on where you live, the entire rest of our lives.
So what’s this to do with water?
Well, simply put water is the end product of energy use. It is not a storage medium it is a waste product. It would be like saying you’ll run your furnace on ash. You would be laughed out of the human race. But say you’ll use the magical liquid of life – water – and for some reason people think there’s something to this idea.
Now, what is the proclaimed inventor claiming? When you get right down to it he knows the water isn’t a fuel. He is in effect using the water as a convenient hydrogen source. It is the hydrogen that runs the car, and presumably the “water-kit” enables the car to process this hydrogen as it would petrol. The kit also contains an electrolysis component that splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. I am unaware as to whether the oxygen released is retained to react with the hydrogen or whether atmospheric oxygen is used for this.
In any case the energy for running the car comes not from the water, but the batteries used to extract the hydrogen. The hydrogen then becomes the interim energy storage medium and the “fuel” for the car.
What we have then is the energy generation being pushed back a step, instead of being done at the car via petrol, it will be handled by the country’s power plants.
I can well imagine that there are benefits to converting cars to this set-up. It effectively turns your automobile into one of this new fangled electric cars without the downside of looking like a self-righteous dick*. There are benefits to using electric cars even if the ultimate power generation comes from fossil fuel consuming power plants (which by my calculation more than half of Pakistan’s electricity comes from) such as local air quality improvements. The ability to deal with emissions at centralised locations and the possibility of sequestering that pesky CO2 at the source.
I suspect however that in the rush to embrace the technology at issue here these peripheral concerns are not really being considered. And for a country that already has too little electricity for the population it has (40% of the country has no access to electricity, and demand is ever increasing for those that do) this does not sound like such a great idea and won’t result in everyone having unlimited fuel for their cars. It can only add to the pressure on the already over-taxed electrical grid.
In addition it is being implied (if not outright stated) that water could be used to run generators. This is where you could justifiably call fraud. While there are conceivable reasons why you might convert a car to “run” on water those reason evaporate when you try to argue that the same can be done for a generator. I’m sure you can see why. You end up just inserting an extra step in the energy generation process, well more like a loop. You have to provide energy to the water to extract the hydrogen and then burn the hydrogen back to water to get the energy. Thanks to that second law thingy you will never get more energy out of that reaction than you out in.
Not only do you insert a completely useless extra step, in doing so you guarantee that the whole process is less efficient. You literally get less combustion for your buck.
I hope that no government official is seriously considering funding a project to replace generators with water powered devices, though I gather millions may be spent investigating the possibility of employing this technology in Pakistan. I don’t know where that money (assuming people don’t wake up by then) is intended to go.
This is the concern whenever fringe theories and technologies are held up as the solution to our problems, that money will be wasted on these rather than put toward more worthy projects.
* A more thorough treatment is here, by former chairman of the Pakistani – Higher Education Commission Dr Attaur Rehman.
** Just kidding. For what it’s worth I think electric cars are really cool and if I could spare the dosh would love to have one. But I gather there is something of a stigma and well it’s a joke – lets not analyse it too much eh?