Bad Science

Published August 3, 2012

-Illustration by Nadir Siddiqui/

Charlatans, quacks and scammers in Pakistan are not a new phenomenon. Witch doctors, black magic practitioners, and herbal healers have long been a part of society, offering ways to cure a disease, get revenge on your mother-in-law or to improve sexual prowess.

These days, however, classical physics is being brutally murdered on television in Pakistan, in front of millions, even if only a few of them care about Science. The laws of conservation of energy, the laws of thermodynamics, basic human intelligence and rationality have been brought to the guillotine. The sentence was carried out by a team of ‘engineers’ from Khairpur, talk show hosts, their production teams and unscientifically leaning ‘renowned scientists’ brought as expert commentators.

‘Engineer’ Agha Waqar and his team have invented the magic pill which will solve all the world’s – but first Pakistan’s energy problems. Lo, and behold, the ‘water kit’! It has already got the nod of approval from a few ministers, a ‘report’ of some sort is due in two weeks on it and the heads of the Pakistan Council of Scientific; and Industrial Research and Pakistan Science Foundation are believers too.

The ‘Engineer’ behind the revolution has already told us that like any patriot, he has refused huge monetary ‘offers’ from various countries (names thrown in for greater effect at times), that he has come to the public without securing any patent because he wants to use it for public good, that he surely feels threatened by the global oil and gas lobby, that he can modify that ‘water kit’ for use on all things (yes, railway engines included) and that revolution is ready to be commercialised. No peer reviewed journals, no scientific method – it works.

Ludicrous Claims

The ‘Engineer’ claimed the following about his revolutionary ‘water kit’: ?    An ordinary car cover a distance of 40km on a single liter of water ?    An ordinary motorcycle cover a distance of 150km on a single liter of water ?    A 1kVA generator can be run for upto 2 hours using a single liter of water (thereby producing, at ordinary power factors, ~1.5kW-h of energy)

Various conflicting claims made in between on three TV shows ranged from:

?    The ‘water kit’ can be used on any kind of water ?    Distilled or bottled water should be used ?    Electrolysis is done using the car battery ?    Electrolysis is done using a separate battery that can be recharged by the car’s alternator ?    Electrolysis takes up anywhere between 1 per cent to very little of the battery’s peak amperage and does not drain the battery ?    Electrolysis takes half the power that an ordinary car stereo takes ?    Electrodes used are capacitors separated by a dielectric ?    The ‘bubbler’ controls flow of gases ?    The modified ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) burns ‘HHO’ ?    The hydrogen produced from electrolysis can be stored and is produced at a rate good enough that constant production is not necessary and hence battery drain not an issue ?    The gas mixture used in the engine is called ‘HHO’ and is more efficient as a fuel than anything known to mankind ?    The combustion of hydrogen is twice as heat efficient as high octane gasoline and the car can reach a top speed twice that it would on gasoline ?    The car can reach it’s top speed on ‘water kit’ and is not held back like CNG

The cost of this revolution: Around Rs. 40,000 for a passenger car. He did not forget to mention that he had to take loans of around Rs 15 million to ‘develop’ the ‘water kit’.

As much as the ‘Engineer’ believed in his device, I believe most certainly that visible stupidity and the quackest of quack science do not necessitate rebuttals. If anyone were to suggest that he or she had found a radical cure to cancer or AIDS: the use of four strong punches on the affected portion with knuckles covered in rice paper, it would not require a scientific rebuttal. The Law of Conservation of Energy really cannot be challenged by a water filter with electrodes attached to a rubber tube. But since the ‘magar gaari toh chalti hai’ argument was being made again and again on TV, it seems like this does require some form of rebuttal.

Here are some quick comments on some of the claims made:

?    Can you run an internal combustion engine on hydrogen? Yes, you can modify an existing one to do so. ?    Can you run a car on hydrogen? Yes, you can. Hydrogen powered cars are even commercially produced now. But they are mostly hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and not hydrogen ICE vehicles. ?    Can you run a car on hydrogen produced from electrolysis? Yes, you can. You can produce hydrogen from electrolysis and you can use it in an ICE to power a vehicle. ?    Is it efficient? Hell, no. Electrolysis is an extremely energy intensive process. Numerous efforts have been to radically improve the efficiency, but huge barriers remain.

As should be known to anyone with secondary school knowledge of chemistry, distilled water is not really conductive. Distilled water in fact has a conductivity of 1,000 to 10,000 times less than tap water. Also, electrodes are supposed to be good conductors, highly conductive metals. I have no idea where capacitors came from. Moreover, you will not find the term ‘HHO’ being used for a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases, or the term ‘brown gas’ being used for it outside quack circles. It is used exclusively by the water-fuel, HHO mileage enhancer crowd. Just google the terms and you’ll see hundreds of ‘water kit’ likes and mileage enhancement attachments being sold by quacks all across the globe.

The central idea is to use electrolysis to produce Hydrogen to fuel the car, and hence the entire process is dependent on the efficiency of electrolysis. As should be known to anyone with middle school scientific knowledge, you cannot just break down water into components and get energy from combustion to reform them without any loss of energy. What was most amazing was that, the ‘Engineer’ was not just claiming 100 per cent efficiency, but reiterating that he was able to get ‘extra energy’ from the system (hidden in a secret vault by the water molecule and released only to those who believe in the power of the ‘water kit’?).

Energy from the magical pill

There are around 55.56 moles of water in one liter. A liter of water – 55.56 moles of H20 – would produce 55.56 moles of H2 and 55.56/2 moles of O2 during electrolysis. The energy released when water is reformed is 286 kJ/mol (aka the enthalpy of combustion) – assuming liquid water and not steam, which it would be in an engine, thereby reducing energy produced even further as 241 kJ/mol for that). For 55.56 moles, this means 15,890 kJ of energy is released.

When hydrogen (or ‘HHO’ as the ‘Engineer’ claimed) is spent in the engine – reforming H2O in the process, energy is released in the combustion process (covalent bonds are formed as atoms approach each other, lowering energy).

A car consuming 100 horsepower would require 100*745.7 Joules/second of energy. So a 100HP car would require 74570 Joules/second or 74.5 kJ/second of energy to power it. From our earlier figures, the energy from one liter of water could power a 100HP car for – given a 100 per cent efficiency electrolytic conversion and combustion – for a total of 213 seconds, or just about 3 minutes and 31 seconds. Not for 40km. I have ignored the altogether important requirements for minimum gas flow rate into the engine. These things simply cannot feed hungry engines with the amount of hydrogen required to run them. That is why hydrogen cars use liquid hydrogen filled from a filling station like gasoline, and not produce hydrogen from water inside a car. Also, water is an incompressible fluid (not perfectly, but very minimal compressibility). You can’t just store a large amount of it in a small tank.

I would at this moment like to state that even now I am not confident that car was still solely running on hydrogen produced from electrolysis. The math just does not add up. Surely the 0.75 liter bottle of war loaded into the ‘water kit’ could not have powered the car for the drives it took on TV. Or maybe there was residual hydrogen in the ‘tube’ that was lying in the back seat of the car.

After wasting energy on breaking down water into Hydrogen and Oxygen you could possibly – in real world and not the make-belief world of ‘water kit’ – power your car from a liter of water for maybe about half a minute. I would take even that figure with a huge pinch of salt. And remember, the battery will have to be recharged for the energy spent in electrolysis.

To break down liquid water into it’s components using electrolysis requires 237.2 kJ/mol in the form of electricity and 48.6 kJ/mol in the form of added heat. For a liter of water, this would require 131,79 kJ from electric power plus added heat (again, 100 per cent efficiency). This means 3.66 kW-h of electricity (cost of electricity from the grid in Pakistan is ~ Rs 9/kW-h these days for comparison). A 12V, 50A-h battery can only manage 600W-h or 0.6kW-h, not 3.66kW-h in anyway.

A hint of caution: Use of pure Oxygen in an ICE is itself dangerous, as Oxygen being highly reactive can fire up low ignition temperature lubricants and other materials deposited in the pathway. Enriched oxygen can increase efficiency by a small factor on itself in ICEs and ICEs for hydrogen use an air mixture.

‘Engineer’ Waqar’s “trade secret” as he said on TV was being able to produce an amount of Hydrogen necessary to run an engine from water which nobody had done before as they had not done their calculations (paraphrasing translation of his words on Dunya TV’s ‘Kyun’). With ‘extra energy’.

Towards the second appearance on Hamid Mir’s show, a head-shaking and visibly angry (at the public promotion of scientific illiteracy) Dr. Ata explained to the show’s host and guests that hydrogen is commercially produced mostly from natural gas (through the process of hydrocarbon steam reforming) and only a very small percentage is produced from the electrolysis of water (this method is 3 to 10 times more expensive than steam reforming). Upon hearing this, the ‘Engineer’ first laid upon Dr. Ata a revelation that the chemical formula of water is H2O (Nobel Prize in Chemistry!), and before he could give us more gems, the host interrupted because this was a ‘technical behis’ (technical argument). If a scientific argument wasn’t the whole point of the show, then you’d wonder what it was?

Unscientific Scientists

The saddest part of the saga is not that the production teams from television channels were fooled or holier than thou talk show hosts were fooled or that even a few politicians were fooled but that the Chairman of the country’s biggest scientific research organisation sat there and had brought a few Google search results not to say that the idea is ludicrous and basic Physics shouldn’t be made fun of on television like this but to say that the idea was not but new and it has already been done (the water powered car scam is decades old with numerous fraudsters sent behind bars for financial fraud in various countries).

But it wasn’t just the PCSIR Chairman. The ‘water kit’ was earlier presented to the country’s apex scientific research funding organisation – Pakistan Science Foundation – and somehow it got a seal of approval from them. It is to get ‘support’ from the public kitty as well. As per ‘Engineer’ Waqar (on Dunya TV), he apparently gave a presentation to the PAEC  (Why?). The PAEC has had Jinn energy experts before. A presentation was given at the Pakistan Engineering Council as well, where apparently no objections were raised on the cruelty shown towards basic Physics.

Then there was the Mohsin-e-Pakistan, who vociferously supported the idea on television, suggested it was practical, even when the ‘Engineer’ was busy telling us that the laws of thermodynamics can be altered and that experimentation precedes theory always. The Mohsin-e-Pakistan was asked for his opinion because he’s a ‘renowned scientist’. Not that he’s more renown for proliferation of centrifuges, he’s actually a metallurgist and not a nuclear physicist like he’s usually mentioned in the media.

All this while, poor Dr Ata-ur-Rehman (himself of HAARP conspiracy fame though) could be seen helplessly trying to talk sense into the host but his efforts were in vain. The host believed – most vehemently – that he was giving necessary coverage to a magic pill required to solve all problems.

On another show, Samar Mubarikmand (of one terawatts from Thar Coal fame – notwithstanding money already spent on UCG without much results) was supportive of the idea and seemed enthusiastic about it, just suggesting that there are safety concerns, but not feasibility ones. The Chairman of the PSF addressed a press conference with the ‘Engineer’ who wants to sue Dr. Ata for defamation. Even the military sent two officials to meet Agha Waqar (‘Water Kit’ powered Al-Khalid?). There aren’t enough tears in the world that can be shed on such a state of science, and the respect for it. Meanwhile, Hamid Mir, Arshad Sharif and Talat Hussain had become free energy suppression conspiracy theory activists and perpetual motion machine believers.

Radical ‘Water Kit’ Science

The only logical conclusion of the ‘water fuel’ saga can be that nuclear fusion takes place inside the engine, thereby producing the missing energy required to run a car from an on-board water tank using electrolysis. With that, ‘Engineer’ Waqar & Co. would have proven cold fusion as well.

When I was a kid, the national daily Nawa-e-Waqt ran a story in it’s Sunday magazine that an ‘inventor’ from Faisalabad had designed a car that ran on  - not water, not air - but kashish-e-saqqal. Yes, a car that ran on gravity! To this day, I wonder if the said car just rolled downhill.

As Abdus Salam’s tombstone is edited by a District Magistrate’s orders and his existence removed from collective memory, we can celebrate ‘Engineer’ Waqar Ahmed who has done something more important than contributing immensely to the standard model of particle physics: destroyed the laws of thermodynamics and the law of conservation of energy.

The good thing is science doesn’t need protection from Pakistani scammers, junk inventors  and rabid media. It is evidence based. It involves rigorous testing. It is replicable. It does not work on ‘chalti to hai’ arguments and hyperventilating appeals made from talk show hosts.

As the world discusses the economics of a hydrogen economy, how to store and transport it safely, and how to use it effectively, Pakistan is busy with the ‘water kit’. Meanwhile in India, a string theorist just landed the newly inaugurated Yuri Milner Fundamental Physics Prize. The prize money? $3 million. Ashoke Sen can buy a couple million ‘water kits’ from that. But surely, he’s wiser than that.


The writer would like to be known as a professional skeptic.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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