Why Can’t We Have Truly Water-Fueled Cars?

Water cannot burn, so the only way to get energy from water is by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. The problem in doing this is that the amount of energy required to separate water into constituent elements is more than what you get back when they recombine inside the fuel cell.

Cars running on water is a long-cherished dream of every consumer and environmental warrior. Whenever the oil prices surge, newspapers, magazines, and other media publications start to run stories of how an XYZ company or ABC inventor is building the car of the future that runs on water. These claims are generally misleading and often chicanery in order to amass large investments from unsuspecting investors by selling them the dream—water as a fuel to revolutionize the automobile industry!

CONSUMER; GASOLINE; WATER meme

The question is… do we really have a tangible technology in place that makes it possible to use water as fuel to power our cars and other automobiles? Despite claims for decades of so-called water-fueled cars, why have none of them hit the consumer market? Let’s find out.


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Chemistry of water playing the spoilsport

A water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom bonded by a covalent bond (sharing of an electron), which is pretty strong. The energy in water is chemically locked up in these strong atomic bonds.

Water 2D dot cross

Covalent bond of water formed by sharing electrons (Photo Credit : Benjah-bmm27/Wikimedia Commons)

Now, water in itself is not combustible. The only way to extract energy from water and use it as fuel is to separate water molecules into constituent elements. By splitting water, hydrogen and oxygen would be separated. Hydrogen gas is a source of energy and is combustible.

Therefore, this hydrogen gas could be then used as a fuel—but not the water directly.

Theoretically, there is a method to split water into constituent elements, with the help of a chemical process called electrolysis, something that you probably studied during your chemistry classes. At the most basic level, electrolysis is a method by which water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen by passing an electric current through the solution.

Electrolysis of water(haryigit)s

Demonstration of electrolysis of water (Photo Credit : haryigit/Shutterstock)

Problem with electrolysis

However, there is a small problem—water in itself is a poor conductor of electricity. One therefore needs to add electrolytes like lithium or sodium into the water to make electrolysis work. Electrolytes, due to their ionic structure, facilitate the flow of electrical energy through the water.

Now, even if you add an electrolyte, there is another problem associated with splitting the water and this problem is a big one. As water is a pretty stable molecule, the energy required to split the molecule is more than the energy that would be derived by combusting hydrogen. Also, remember that during the conversion of water into constituent elements, some energy is dissipated in the form of heat.

Thus, extracting more chemical energy from water than the energy spent in the process of electrolysis is impossible. The basic rules of thermodynamics restrict us from creating any new energy from water without spending more energy in some other form.

ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY; VIOLATE LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS meme

But I have heard about water-powered cars!

Well, scientifically, it’s not possible to make a fully water-fueled car without violating well-established laws of thermodynamics, unless someone wants to expend more energy in order to derive less energy.

Charlatans have made tall claims about developing water-fueled cars, but their claims were never verified/approved by authorities and experts.

Charles Garett water car

Probably the first to make this claim was an inventor called Charles Garett. As per the Dallas Morning News report, Garett allegedly demonstrated a water-powered car on September 8, 1935. However, examining the patent that Charles filed for this design, it is most likely that he used electrolysis to power the car from hydrogen molecules generated out of the reaction. His patent failed to bring out any new source of energy.

Stan Meyer water car

In the late 70s, one of the most famous claims for the water-fueled car was made by Stanley Meyer during the peak of the oil crisis. He claimed to have to built a dune buggy that used water as fuel. However, when quizzed on how he went about it, his answers were inconsistent. On some occasions, he claimed to have swapped the spark plugs with a water splitter for using water as fuel. In some other instances, he claimed to have used fuel cells to split the hydrogen and oxygen, which is another way of using electrolysis, which is inefficient. His claims were never verified by any reputed automobile association. In fact, in the mid-90s, Meyer was sued by investors to whom he sold dealerships of his so-called “Water Fuel Cell Technology”. An Ohio court found him guilty of gross and egregious fraud.

Genesis World Energy

At the turn of the millennium, a company called Genesis World Energy announced that they were developing a device that would harness energy from water by separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms and then recombining them. In 2003, the company claimed that its technology was ready and would soon be deployed in automobiles. Under the garb of these highfalutin claims, the company managed to collect 2.5 million dollars from investors for operations. Investors later realized that none of their devices were deployed in any automobile… they were being duped! Patrick Kelly, the owner of Genesis World Energy, was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to five years in prison.

Genepax

Another hoax of water-powered cars in recent times was pulled off by a Japanese company called Genepax, which supposedly unveiled a car that ran purely on water and air! This company, like earlier claimants of water-fueled car developers, declined to shed light on how they had achieved this incredible feat. They only disclosed that they were using an energy generator called a “membrane electrode assembly” to extract energy from hydrogen by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Popular Mechanics, a renowned science magazine, disproved these claims by Genepax and called them rubbish. Interestingly, after the rebuttal by Popular Mechanics, the company closed its website!

While it is certainly enticing when a company or individual claims that they have developed technology that can power cars purely on water, when it comes to science, there is a fundamental restriction to this very idea. Simply put… energy can neither be created nor destroyed (it can only be transformed from one form to another). Water cannot burn, so the only way to derive usable energy is by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

As mentioned many times, the problem in doing so is that the amount of energy spent separating water into constituent elements is more than the energy you get back when they recombine inside the fuel cell. The laws of thermodynamics remain intact and cannot be bent, let alone broken. Thus, a truly water-powered car remains elusive, but who knows what the future holds!

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About the Author

Hussain Kanchwala is an Electronic Engineer from University of Mumbai. He is a tech aficionado who loves to explicate on wide range of subjects from applied and interdisciplinary sciences like Engineering, Technology, FinTech, Pharmacy, Psychology and Economics.

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