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Saturday, August 11, 2012


The answer is NO and YES.  There is no engine today capable of using water to power a car.  But, yes, someday, the water can be dissociated into oxygen and hydrogen.  First, the oxygen itself cannot be used alone, but can be combined with any fuel (such as gasoline or hydrogen) to combust.  Clearly, though, why combine the oxygen and hydrogen again, for you would lose energy coming and going. It would be best to feed the hydrogen to a fuel cell, but, more so, why not power the car just with the battery.  Secondly, with a hot enough heat source, the water can be converted to steam, and this gas can be used to turn a turbine to power a vehicle.  Thus, there are various mechanisms to starting with water, but nothing is today effective because there is no compact and intense heat source.

The next question is what can efficiently and cost effectively break down water into one molecule of oxygen and two of hydrogen?  Today nothing can.  Tomorrow, who knows?

Recently, Agha Waqar Ahmed (left) of Pakistan claimed that he has a kit using only distilled water with an electrolyte (chemical compound) to power his car.  The system uses a battery to run an electrolyzer, and the hydrogen is fed into the engine.  He is, for now, a national hero.  Of course this works, but will this revolutionize the automobile industry?  No.  Shaukat Pervez, chairman of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research said "this is a feasible project," while his counterpart at the Pakistan Science Foundation remarked the invention as "an extraordinary breakthrough."  Hardly.  There is no way to make this combination competitive.  Said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent physicist from that country, the farce just shows that:

  Our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence.

My association with water and transport is an interesting story.  It was in the mid-1990's when I was having lunch with Kiryun Choi (with me to the right, professor at Ajou University) and Ki Hyung Kim (left, first Minister of Science and Technology for South Korea) at the Renaissance Hotel in Seoul, when Dr. Kim remarked:  "Wouldn't it be nice if my driver could just pour some water from my lawn hose into the tank to serve as the fuel?"  

That simple question led to the Renaissance Project, which later that year, after a special planning meeting held in Reno chaired by Alan Lloyd (left), who replaced me as chairman of the U.S. Secretary of Energy's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel. The eminent (Paul MacCready, Bob Rose, Roberta Nichols, Pandit Patil plus another 25 participants) conferees developed a contest for students to design "something" which could convert water into a fuel to power a car.  Dr. Kim, Dr. Lloyd and I presented a paper at the World Car Conference in Riverside, California in 1997 entitled "The Renaissance Project for the Next Millennium."  

You can go to Chapter 3 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth to read the details.  The bottom line was that it turned out that hydrogen from a 15 tank gallon tank of water, with electrolysis, and using a fuel cell, could take that car 500 miles.  The technology that showed the best hope for providing the energy was cold fusion.  I would not be surprised if some time during the century this actually happens.  Martin Fleishmann (right), who was most responsible for this concept (cold fusion), died last week at the age of 85.  Is cold fusion finally being accepted by the scientific community?


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