Friday, September 14, 2007

Burning water and other myths

[Here is my latest piece for muse@nature. This stuff dismays and delights me in equal measure. Dismays, because it shows how little critical thought is exercised in daily life (by the media, at least). Delights, because it vindicates my thesis that water’s mythological status will forever make it a magnet for pathological science. In any event, do watch the video clips – they’re a hoot.]

We will never stem the idea that water can act as a fuel.

Have you heard the one about the water-powered car? If not, don’t worry – the story will come round again. And again. Crusaders against pseudoscience can rant and rave as much as they like, but in the end they might as well accept that the myth of water as fuel is never going to go away.

Its latest manifestation comes from Pennsylvania, where a former broadcast executive named John Kansius claims to have found a way to turn salt water into a fuel. Expose it to a radiofrequency field, he says, and the water burns. There are videos to prove it, and scientists and engineers have apparently verified the result.

“He may have found a way to solve the world’s energy problems”, announced one local TV presenter. “Instead of paying four bucks for gas, how would you like to run your car on salt water?” asked another. “We want it now!” concludes a wide-eyed anchorwoman. Oh, don’t we just.

“I’d probably guess you could power an automobile with this eventually”, Kansius agrees. Water, he points out, is “the most abundant element in the world.”

It’s easy to scoff, but if the effect is genuine then it is also genuinely intriguing. Plain tap water apparently doesn’t work, but test tubes of salt water can be seen burning merrily with a bright yellow flame in the r.f. field. The idea, articulated with varying degrees of vagueness in news reports when they bother to think about such things at all, is that the r.f. field is somehow dissociating water into oxygen and hydrogen. Why salt should be essential to this process is far from obvious. You might think that someone would raise that question.

But no one does. No one raises any questions at all. The reports offer a testament to the awesome lack of enquiry that makes news media everywhere quite terrifyingly defenceless against bogus science.

And it’s not just the news media. Here is all this footage of labs and people in white coats and engineers testifying how amazing it is, and not one seems to be wondering about how this amazing phenomenon works. As a rule, it is always wise to be sceptical of people claiming great breakthroughs without the slightest indication of any intellectual curiosity about them.

This is not in itself to pass any judgement on Kansius’s claims; as ever, they must stand or fall on the basis of careful experiment. But the most fundamental, the most critical question about the whole business leaps out at you so immediately that its absence from these reports, whether they be on Pennsylvania’s JET-TV or on, is staggering. The effect relies on r.f. fields, right? So how much energy is needed to produce this effect, and how much do you get out?

I can answer that right now. You start with water, you break it apart into its constituent elements, and then you recombine them by burning. Where are you ever going to extract energy from that cycle, if you believe in the first law of thermodynamics? Indeed, how are you going to break even, if you believe in the second law of thermodynamics?

But ‘energy for free’ enthusiasts don’t want to know about thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is a killjoy. Thermodynamics is like big government or big industry, always out to squash innovation. Thermodynamics is the enemy of the Edisonian spirit of the backyard inventor.

Here, however (for what it is worth) is the definitive verdict of thermodynamics: water is not a fuel. It never has been, and it never will be. Water does not burn. Water is already burnt – it is spent fuel. It is exhaust.

Oh, it feels better to have said that, but I don’t imagine for a moment that it will end these claims of ‘water as fuel’. Why not? Because water is a mythical substance. Kansius’s characterization of water as an ‘element’ attests to that: yes, water is of course not a chemical element, but it will never shake off its Aristotelian persona, because Aristotle’s four classical elements accord so closely with our experiential relationship with matter.

Indeed, one of the most renowned ‘water as fuel’ prophets, the Austrian forester Viktor Schauberger, whose experiments on water flumes and turbulence led to a most astonishing history that includes audiences with Hitler and Max Planck and water-powered Nazi secret weapons, claimed that water is indeed in some sense elemental and not ‘compound’ at all.

And water has always looked like a fuel – for it turned the water wheels of the Roman empire, and still drives hydroelectric plants and wave turbines all over the world. No wonder it seems energy-packed, if you don’t know thermodynamics.

Water, we’re told, can unlock the hydrogen economy, and holds untold reserves of deuterium for nuclear fusion. Here is nuclear pioneer Francis Aston on the discovery of fusion in 1919: “To change the hydrogen in a glass of water into helium would release enough energy to drive the Queen Mary across the Atlantic and back at full speed.” Was it a coincidence that cold fusion involves the electrolysis of (heavy) water, or that the controversial recent claims of ‘bubble fusion’ now subject to investigations of malpractice took place in water? Of course not.

As for ‘burning water’, that has a long history in itself. This was what the alchemists called alcohol when they first isolated it, and they were astonished by a water that ignites. One of the recent sightings of ‘water fuel’ happened 11 years ago in Tamil Nadu in India, where a chemist named Ramar Pillai claimed to power a scooter on ‘herbal petrol’ made by boiling herbs in water at a cost of one rupee (three cents) a litre. Pillai was granted 20 acres of land by the regional government to cultivate his herbal additive before he was rumbled.

And then there is poor Stanley Meyer, inventor of the ‘water-powered car’. Meyer just wanted to give people cheap, clean energy, but the oil companies wouldn’t have it. They harassed and intimidated him, and in 1996 he was found guilty of “gross and egregious fraud” by an Ohio court. He died in 1998 after eating at a restaurant; the coroner diagnosed an aneurysm, but the conspiracy web still suspects he was poisoned.

It’s not easy to establish how Meyer’s car was meant to work, except that it involved a fuel cell that was able to split water using less energy than was released by recombination of the elements. Dig a little deeper and you soon find the legendary Brown’s gas, a modern chemical unicorn to rival phlogistion, in which hydrogen and oxygen are combined in a non-aqueous state called ‘oxyhydrogen’. Brown’s gas was allegedly used as a vehicle fuel by its discoverer, Australian inventor Yull Brown.

I think Kansius must be making Brown’s gas. How else can you extract energy by burning water, if not via a mythical substance? Unlike Stan Meyer’s car, this story will run and run.


sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sam said...

That "news" video makes me so sad.

JimmyGiro said...

I hope this turns out to be a hoax, in which the PVA employees asked a local ex-TV associate to help spoof the latest surge in alternative energy 'research'.

The PVA polymer company seems a legitimate body (at least they have a web site), and possibly they are having a laugh, or are simply tired of the pseudo-science.

If it's for real, then one has to ask what the standards of science are in American industry; even I could get a job there !?

JimmyGiro said...

... If it is real, then we have to guess the mechanism, just for fun.

The effect seems to be in the vapour phase above the liquid (microwaves would have boiled the liquid, but lower frequency RF waves will only interact with the vapour).

First question, does the solvated ion enter the vapour above the liquid? If it does then the high electric field of the applied RF might accelerate these 'ion water chelates' through the vapour; the water molecules on their own would only orientate their dipoles.

Second question, is the flame really a combustion flame? Could it be a flame shaped plasma, behaving and shaped like a flame because it has the same heat dynamic.

So if some ions are able to enter the vapour phase, then we have the 'marbles in a dishwasher' and all hell breaks loose in the presents of the oscillating electric field, the heat generated would induce more ions from the solution into the vapour/plasma. Though I'm at a loss as to why he needs to ignite it, unless there is some initial stability to overcome?

ftwom said...

Being skeptical by nature, I was curious about the Kanzius ‘discovery’. From reading as much as I can on the Internet [which is how I came across this blog], I gather that what is happening is that Kanzius has stumbled across a phenomenon articulated by Klaus Rasbach in his 1994 Patent DE4238952 [now expired] “Hydrogen and oxygen generation from water using resonance frequency” [].
I am not a scientist and claim no scientific expertise whatsoever. What confuses me is that in my reading/research, people seem to be talking about a ‘net energy gain’. Perhaps I don’t understand what they are talking about, but I have been under the impression that there can be no such thing as a ‘net energy gain’, as distinguished from the concept of ‘energy efficiency’ which I understand to mean the energy output of a particular machine/device compared to the required energy input. If people writing about the Kanzius ‘discovery’ are actually referring to energy efficiency, then is it possible that the use of resonant frequency [in this case RF waves] is more efficient in dissociating hydrogen and oxygen from H2O than other traditional methods, as perhaps Rasbach might be claiming [I haven’t read Rasbach’s complete patent so I am only assuming that he might make such a claim]? Of course I realize, even if ‘resonance dissociation’ is more efficient, that is a long way from using that phenomenon/characteristic to actually constructing a machine/automobile that is also more energy efficient than today’s counterparts. But basically I’m trying my best to wade through the ‘science’ involved, because if a more energy efficient machine could be made based on the concept of ‘resonance dissociation’, then would that not be a practical thing to consider? Surely there must be hundreds of engineers who could set about the design of the energy input source needed to drive the RF generator, e.g., wind or solar, to assist in the increase of energy efficiencies of whatever devices may be forthcoming using this principle.
I ask all this because I am assuming that the burning of ‘fossil fuels’ in internal combustion engines has some well-known energy efficiency, and am wondering how that efficiency would compare to the efficiency of a ‘resonance dissociation’ based vehicle. Has anyone done such a comparison?
I would appreciate any enlightenment possible. As I said, I am not a scientist, so the questions I am asking may be ridiculous sounding, but if I don’t ask, I’ll never learn, and being 62 years of age, I am interested in anything that will help to leave an inhabitable world for the coming generations.

Philip Ball said...

ftwom: I guess what you're really asking is whether this rf process is more efficient than standard electrolysis of water (assuming it really does work at all - it's not easy to see how it might). It seems electrolysis can be done very efficiently - perhaps more than 90%. I find it extremely hard to imagine that this method is going to do better than that, given that I can't see how all or even most of a broadband rf signal is going to be channelled into water-splitting. But Kanzius doesn't even seem to be asking that question. The news reports, meanwhile, seem to imply that somehow there's more energy coming out than is going in, which is obviously nonsense.

Lisa said...

When I was about 11 a CSIRO rep came to our school to show us the science behind various magic tricks and generally entertain us. One of the things I recall him saying was that one day we will be pouring water into our fuel tank, sunlight will be splitting it into oxygen and hydrogen, and the resulting explosive substances would be used as fuel.

I was the kid who raised my hand and asked why couldn't such a car be produced right now? His response was that all the patents to such devices were held by oil companies who would hold on to them for several years until oil reserves ran low.

The upshot, I think, is that people including me have confused "water-powered" cars with "hydrogen-powered" cars, even when the latter just means "electric cars".

ZScientist said...

Hi Mr Ball,

I believe that one has to make allowances for the fact that Mr Kanzius is not a scientist, or indeed has been educated above high school level.

My interpretation of Mr Kanzius comments about fueling a car most probably him just being careless.
It is obvious that putting salt water into a car would have all sorts of ramifications!

Now regarding the use this method as a replacement for Oil?

It appears from reading some of the blogs that there are at least 2 different reactions occuring, the harmonic resonance of Sodium ions, and the dissociation of hydrogen ions. Also, there is the possiblity of impurities being added.

That such complex reactions are a possibility means that the thermodynamic work done a century ago may not apply in this case due to nonlinear resonance effects.

IMHO, It would be prudent to wait say 12 months for a peer reviewed paper to appear.

Finally there is the point of the hydrogen economy. At the moment, a very big problem is that of transportation. But most people live near the Sea! Also, a big, big problem is that electrolysis requires LARGE QUANTITIES OF PURE WATER!

To sum up, I believe that although you are right to be skeptical, there are many interesting possibiltiy raised by Mr Kanzius' invention


james said...

well, I certainly don't know what has happened with the Kanzius phenomenon since the reports coming from Professor Roy's Materials Research Lab at Penn State. But I can assure you that Professor Roy and his colleagues are internationally known scientists of the highest caliber. They are quite aware of all the questions you poor boobs don't even know how to formulate, including those related to the Second law of thermodynamics.

There may be much to learn here. Let's be patient.

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Xtraeme said...

While I appreciate your deference for the laws of thermodynamics, I see no science in this article. Usually to criticize something requires looking at evidence first-hand, by doing the leg-work involved to see if the effect is real, and *then* looking for ways to kick the wheels to see if it does what the inventor claims.

This isn't arguing in defense of the many charlatans that have peddled "zero point energy" technology. Instead it's to point out I'd prefer a critique that's meaty and has something to bite in to rather than a limp "it defies thermodynamics!" argument that any highschooler could come up with.