There's some ideas that will never die, not because of the actual value of the idea, but because of the value of the idea of the idea. The water-powered car is one of these ideas.
The idea itself— to build a car that runs on ordinary water— is total crap, scientifically. It violates at least one law of physics, and pisses off a few others. But the idea behind the idea— a car that runs on something so plentiful and cheap it's almost valueless— will never go away. It's just too tantalizing to give up.
And that's why last month, yet another contender stepped forward to claim the nonexistent prize of a water-powered car. This time, it was in Pakistan. Almost a century ago, in 1916, this same claim was made by an American. And in between there have been many others, all of whom dreamed of filling their cars up with a garden hose. Well, that, and taking as much money from hopeful rubes as possible.
[Author's note: The idea of the water-powered car as a holy grail is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that I actually first encountered it as a kid, in, of all places, a crappy 70s Batman cartoon. I'm including the link to the video here, but be prepared—it's pretty awful. But there is a hyena, Batman playing Pong, references to peanut butter-and-sardine pie, and a water powered car that can explode like a nuke. ]
The American who made that WWI-era claim was Louis Enricht. In 1916, he announced that he developed an inexpensive compound that, when added to regular water, could run a car. He demonstrated his invention at a presentation on Long Island that sounds a bit like a magic act. He had the reporters inspect the car, looking for additional tanks, then had them bring him a bucket of water.
To the bucket he added a greenish substance, and then poured the water and solution into the car. The car then ran on the mixture, with the exhaust having a notable almond smell.
His demonstrations generated a lot of interest and money. Henry Ford visited him, and people gave millions of dollars to invest in his work. One banker who invested $100,000, with the promise of a $900,000 more, was given an envelope with the formula; that envelope was later revealed to hold a few low-value treasury bonds.
Enricht was, of course, a fraud. He gambled away most of the money, and his demonstrations used acetylene with cyanide to cover the smell— cyanide gives off the strong almond odor. Acetylene and water will power an internal-combustion engine, for a while, at the cost of a great deal of corrosion and wear on the engine. Worse than that, it's a lot more expensive than gasoline.
Enricht ended up convicted of grand larceny and spent seven years in jail, but that hasn't deterred the many water-powered car dreamers and schemers who followed him.
Post-Enricht water-powered car proponents usually base their claims on some form of hydrogen generation via electrolysis. Like all good frauds, there is a grain of truth here. Water does, in fact, contain hydrogen, and anyone who's watched the History Channel for any length of time can tell you that hydrogen is very good at burning and exploding. The problem is that it takes more energy to get hydrogen out of water than you can ever get back by burning hydrogen in an engine. There's just no way around that— energy can't be created or destroyed, but it can be wasted, usually as heat. Getting hydrogen from electrolysis certainly does that, being only 50-80% efficient at best.
Stupid Laws of Thermodynamics aren't the sort of thing that keeps dedicated people down, though. In the late 70s, an inventor named Sam Leslie Leach claimed to have developed a system that used a secret catalyst (manganese oxide) that let him extract hydrogen and more energy out of water. Eventually, a test rig was set up in a 1980 Plymouth Horizon. Many people believed him, including Motor Trend, who breathlessly reported in 1982:
Economical analysis of hydrogen versus gasoline in an internal combustion engine has already proven the cost-effective potential of H2 over gasoline. But, as readers of Motor Trend know, there are some aspects to be considered in the overall scheme of alternative fuels. Perhaps the most critical is hydrogen availability, which brings us back to the fundamentals of the SLX process. Incredibly, it offers the availability of an exothermic process where hydrogen is produced from deionized water. Since there is heat produced during the combined thermochemical and photochemical processes, liberation of heat in excess of that required to start and continue hydrogen production allows system efficiency in excess of 100%. Data gathered by a Chicago-based consulting firm showed a range of system efficiency from a low of 143% to a high of more than 200%. It is this feature of the SLX process which has caused considerable stir within the scientific and academic Communities.
It wasn't just laws of nature that were broken, and by 1986 Leach's investors were being sued for fraud. One of the investors being sued was Morris Merkin, the founder of Budget Rent-A-Car. Mirkin was totally taken in by Leach, not only investing in his research, but also buying him a Pebble Beach home and a couple of Rolls-Royces. Which I believe remained gas-powered.
It is a bit of a shame that Leach (who called himself a doctor, but, surprise, wasn't) stopped development on his water-powered vehicles, because one of his plans for a demo vehicle included a clear gas tank full of goldfish. That would be bad-ass. (Mental note: patent thin aquariums to replace automobile rear windows. And delete these sentences before publishing!)
Leach was a fraud, but it's possible he genuinely believed what he was doing was possible— the photos of his prototype Horizon show a very involved mechanism, if nothing else. All that plumbing and valves may have been there to fool wealthy investors, maybe he actually thought it could work, at least for a time. For the most recent entry on the roster of frauds and charlatans, Pakastani Agha Waqar Ahmad, I have to suspect he knows what he's doing, and is preying on a people who desperately need cheaper energy, and on a government hungry for world status.
Currently, Ahmad has his "water kit" installed on his Suzuki, which he drives around and claims he goes 40 kilometers per liter of distilled water. I don't want to sound like a jerk here, but history and physics make it pretty clear that this is, charitably, horse feces. What makes this especially painful in this case is how much national pride and hope are invested in what will no doubt prove to be a fraudulent exercise. Reading the comments in articles like this one actively make me cringe. I really would love it if this were true, but I'm pretty certain the people and government of Pakistan are headed for a letdown. You'd think a national government would be able to discern reality from fiction, but that's clearly not the case.
There's plenty of incredible innovations waiting to happen in the fields of energy production— in fact, just this week a major fusion power breakthrough may have happened at Sandia labs— but it's not going to be water-powered cars. As long as we're still using oil, we'll still see this tired old dog trotted out again and again, so don't be fooled. It doesn't work.
Maybe we should just work on turning the oceans to gasoline instead.