Knowledge Update

Water as car fuel - how far we have reached

blog post

Running automobiles on pure water has been a dream of mankind. A water-fueled car is an automobile that hypothetically derives its energy directly from the water. Water-fuelled cars have been the subject of numerous international patents, newspaper, and popular science magazine articles, local television news coverage, and websites. These vehicles may be claimed to produce fuel from the water on board with no other energy input or may be a hybrid claiming to derive some of its energy from water in addition to a conventional source (such as gasoline). However, many of these claims and devices have been found to be pseudoscience [1].

Water is fully oxidized hydrogen. Hydrogen itself is a high-energy, flammable substance, but its useful energy is released when water is formed. Water will not burn. The process of electrolysis can split water into hydrogen and oxygen, but it takes as much energy to take apart a water molecule as was released when the hydrogen was oxidized to form water. Some energy would be lost in converting water to hydrogen and then burning the hydrogen because some waste heat would always be produced in the conversions. Releasing chemical energy from water, in excess or in equal proportion to the energy required to facilitate such production, would therefore violate the first or second law of thermodynamics. According to the currently accepted laws of physics, there is no way to extract chemical energy from water alone. Water itself is highly stable—it was one of the classical elements and contains very strong chemical bonds. Its enthalpy of formation is negative (-68.3 kcal/mol or -285.8 kJ/mol), meaning that energy is required to break those stable bonds, to separate water into its elements, and there are no other compounds of hydrogen and oxygen with more negative enthalpies of formation, meaning that no energy can be released in this manner either [2].

Most proposed water-fuelled cars rely on some form of electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen and then recombine them to release energy; however, because the energy required to separate the elements will always be at least as great as the useful energy released, this cannot be used to produce net energy.

At least as far back as 1980, Stanley Meyer claimed that he had built a dune vehicle that ran on water, although he gave inconsistent explanations as to its mode of operation. In 2002, the firm Hydrogen Technology Applications patented an electrolyser design and trademarked the term "Aquygen" to refer to the hydrogen-oxygen gas mixture produced by the device. Originally developed as an alternative to oxyacetylene welding, the company claimed to be able to run a vehicle exclusively on water, via the production of "Aquygen." At present, the company no longer claims it can run a car exclusively on water and is instead marketing "Aquygen" production as a technique to increase fuel efficiency. Also in 2002, Genesis World Energy announced a market-ready device which would extract energy from water by separating the hydrogen and oxygen and then recombining them. In 2003, the company announced that this technology had been adapted to power automobiles. The company collected over $2.5 million from investors, but none of their devices were ever brought to market. In June 2008, Japanese company Genepax unveiled a car it claimed ran on only water and air, and many news outlets dubbed the vehicle a "water-fuel car". The company did not reveal the core part of this invention but it disclosed that the system used an onboard energy generator, which it called a "membrane electrode assembly", to extract the hydrogen. Also in 2008, Sri Lankan news sources reported that Thushara Priyamal Edirisinghe claimed to drive a water-fuelled car about 300 km (190 miles) on 3 liters of water. Like other alleged water-fuelled cars described above, energy for the car was supposedly produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis and then burning the gases in the engine. Thushara was arrested a few months later on suspicion of investment fraud [3]. In December 2011, Pakistani doctor Ghulam Sarwar claimed he had invented a car that ran only on water. At the time the invented car was claimed to use 60% water and 40% Diesel. Many such claims of using water as fuel have resonated across the globe from time to time. However, as of today, we are yet to find a cost-effective method to harvest hydrogen from water and use it as fuel. On the other hand, some progress has been made on the use of hydrogen as a fuel.

As of 2019, there are three models of hydrogen cars publicly available in select markets: the Toyota Mirai, the world's first mass-produced dedicated fuel cell electric vehicle, the Hyundai Nexo, and the Honda Clarity. Several other companies are working to develop hydrogen cars [4]. As of 2019, 98% of hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming, which emits carbon dioxide. The drawbacks of hydrogen use are high carbon emissions intensity when produced from natural gas, capital cost burden, low energy content per unit volume at ambient conditions, production and compression of hydrogen, the investment required in filling stations to dispense hydrogen, transportation of hydrogen to filling stations and lack of ability to produce or dispense hydrogen at home.

Students at IIT Roorkee, India have developed a new electric car prototype that runs on water and aluminum, instead of fuel or electricity. The car is powered by water and an aluminum plate. The car can run 1,000 km on a single charge. It requires a liter of water every 300 km. Once the 1,000-km mark is crossed, one would need to change the aluminum plate that may take 15 minutes. As of now, these plates cost Rs. 5,000 but are likely to get cheaper in the future as demand goes up [5]. Another car mechanic Mohammad Raees Markani from Madhya Pradesh, India has invented a car that runs on water. The car runs on acetylene gas, which is formed from a chemical reaction between calcium carbide and water. Raees now has a patent for his water car. However, his car engine will emit CO2 and will not help to curb pollution.

There are lots of activities going globally to find affordable alternatives to fossil fuel to reduce the carbon footprint and curbing pollution. However, we still have lots of ground to cover to see the use water as fuel. Until we can find a mechanism that can efficiently separate the hydrogen from water, till then using water as fuel will just remain a dream. 

References

1. Wikipedia, “Water-fuelled car”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water-fuelled_car. Assessed 12/01/2020

2. Philip B, (2007) "Burning water and other myths". Nature News.

3. Daily Mirror, (2008) “Sri Lanka – Water car story didn't hold water".

4. Wikipedia, “Hydrogen Vehicle”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_vehicle. Assessed 12/01/2020.

5. Business Today, (2018) “Car that runs on water! IIT-Roorkee students try to achieve the impossible [https://tinyurl.com/yaozgaev]. Assessed 12/01/2020

6. Think Change India, (2016) “Why China is eyeing an Indian mechanic's car that runs on water”. [https://tinyurl.com/yxz2becb]. Assessed 13/01/2020

 

Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Pal is a Professor of Biology in Skyline University Nigeria. He has a PhD. in Animal Genetics from Indian Veterinary Research Institute, India.

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