Water on the brain

Pieter de Bruin, of 1* P***** Avenue, Ceres, may well be dead. If not, I munged his address because I fear for his safety. Big Oil will surely get him. His only hope of survival is to let them buy his silence with a few billion dollars, but he will have to live in the lap of luxury knowing the price is depriving thousands of ordinary South Africans not only of a money making opportunity, but also of a real chance to save the planet from imminent carbon doom.

Same bakkie, different signage todayWhile sitting in the dark, caused by an acute attack of global warming, I perused by candlelight an advertisement De Bruin placed in the latest issue of Popular Mechanics. This magazine has always been a rich source of entertainment, and De Bruin’s ad is a classic: alongside a photo of a bakkie with lots of signage, such as “test vehicle” added in Microsoft Paint, he’s flogging something he calls HHO. The letters stand for hydrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, and represent a “fuel saving technology”.

“This technology does not mean we are running on water, but introducing HHO, which simply and effectively creates the effect of using the same fuel in a more economical way. It supplements and CORRECTS the behaviour of fuel,” the advert claims, directing readers to a remarkably amateurish and painfully illiterate website at HHO4fuel.co.za.

Whoever wrote the copy didn’t actually read the website themselves, since it says quite clearly: “HHO = Oxyhydrogen = H2O = Water”

This, of course, is not true. Anyone who studied chemistry at school will know that there’s no way two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom will form a stable bond other than in the form it takes in water, and there’s no way that could be written other than H2O, or HOH, at a push, because a hydrogen atom in the middle wouldn’t care much for the oxygen on its right once it had bonded with another hydrogen atom on its left. So what’s going on here?

Surprisingly, the notion is not entirely weird, though it does attract every shade of crackpot under the sun. It is also not new.

De Bruin (“the Brown”, in Dutch) is talking about Brown’s gas, which is simply a mixture of hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). Water can be split into these molecular gases by electrolysis. Hydrogen is a flammable gas, and as such can be used as fuel. Hydrogen-powered cars are nothing new either. You’d make a lot more money if you can solve the high-pressure storage problem, or the high-volume distribution problem. You’d make a right fortune if you can figure out a way to produce hydrogen gas using less energy than just burning regular unleaded.

Blowtorches using “oxyhydrogen” or “oxy-gas” have been in use since Yull Brown (of Brown’s gas fame) patented it in the late 1970s. They use either a bottle of each gas, or an electrolysis unit plugged into the electricity mains. Research papers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (such as this 1974 paper and this one from 1976) describe how adding hydrogen to the fuel mixture of a car allows the engine to run leaner that it otherwise would. It stands to reason that a leaner-running engine might save fuel, provided its power output doesn’t drop by the same amount.

Of course the energy required to generate the hydrogen is a bit of a problem. It takes a lot of electricity to generate separately. De Bruin’s device electrolyses the water on board, and instead of running the engine on hydrogen, merely adds a little to the fuel or air inlet. So as not to bog your engine down with generating the power for this process, one shouldn’t expect a lot of hydrogen to be generated, so your fuel saving will probably be modest, and don’t expect to keep your warranty intact.

Though elaborately presented in fashionable magenta with lots of exclamation marks, De Bruin is only marginally more honest than other purveyors of this hyped stuff. He doesn’t claim 50% fuel savings, he claims 30%. He doesn’t have to explain why, if his car can run 100 miles on four ounces of water, he needs a hybrid engine, nor does he claim that an oxy-gas torch is a new invention and that its 2 000°C flame doesn’t feel very hot. All of these far-fetched claims are made by Denny Klein, of Hydrogen Technology Applications, who promptly hijacked Brown’s gas, renamed it Klein’s gas, and patented a trivial variation of a decades-old, perfectly obvious and previously patented process for generating the gas by electrolysis. A gullible television insert that includes the claims he makes can be seen here.

Not only the popular media, but fairly respectable science publications are taken in by the idea of running a car on water. Witness New Scientist, for example, claiming that, “Before long, you might be able to run your car with nothing more than water in its fuel tank. It would be the ultimate zero-emissions vehicle.”

Nothing more, in this case, except for 18kg of boron. The water is “reacted with” the boron, to produce the hydrogen on which the engine runs. This just happens to turns the boron into boron oxide, which needs to be reprocessed — using energy — in order to be used again as boron. So in reality, boron is the primary fuel, producing hydrogen and boron oxide, hydrogen is the secondary fuel or energy carrier, and water isn’t a fuel at all. The entire process is marginally less efficient than Freddy Flintstone’s ultimate zero-emissions vehicle. And even the Flintstone ZEV isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to the Flintstone Incorporated press release, it emits methane, which is a dangerous greenhouse gas — though admittedly a far less significant greenhouse gas than H2O.

Either way, if De Bruin is still alive, he is in mortal danger. Doesn’t everyone know that when Big Oil fails to convince alternative fuel inventors to sell the patents to them for billions, instead of selling them for billions to car manufacturers, they send round the cleaners? There’s this guy, Stanley Meyer, who invented an HHO driven car. He figured out how to make it more efficient that the Flintstone ZEV, using a revolutionary fuel cell. First, the courts called him a fraud. Who controls the courts? You guessed it. And now he’s dead. Coincidence? Of course not. Another inventor died in prison. Another fell down stairs and broke his neck. Who built those stairs? Right. Who writes the building codes? Don’t you know it. Another guy mysteriously died of old age. I’m not kidding. These people are dangerous.

Yours for R1 000! It’s very good bicarb, though.While De Bruin sells his $100 kits, he had better hope the men in dark glasses think Ceres is like Oros: not 100% real. After all, the water-fuelled car, discussed in whispered tones only on secret underground websites, are suppressed by the vast right wing conspiracy and the very same fossil fuel companies who blew up the twin towers and tried to make Jesus kill the Romans.

But there’s still time to accept the billion dollars from the Arabs that the late Stanley Meyer so foolishly turned down.