The Hydrogen Electrolyzer Debunked?

Popular Mechanics just ran the tests and reported on the results:

Water-Powered Cars: Hydrogen Electrolyzer Mod Can’t Up MPGs

I have told people not to waste their money, but that is just based on the science: It takes more energy to electrolyze water than you get back out of it. In theory, injecting hydrogen could allow you to run at a different compression ratio, which could allow you to derive more useful work out of the engine. Or, it could allow you to run at a different fuel/air ratio. So I don’t necessarily reject it out of hand until I have seen the data, I am just highly skeptical. Popular Mechanics provides some data. The background:

Water-powered cars continue to be the largest single topic taking over my in box—and the Comments section of this Web site. And it’s not just my recent column on the truth about water-chugging prototypes. This trend has become an obsession with many backyard inventors, and some of them have become quite strident, insisting that if I knew anything at all about cars, I’d be embracing this technology. They say it could help change the world as we know it. They even say it could eliminate the energy crisis altogether.

So, last month I received an electrolyzer, fabricated by my old Monster Garage partner, Steve Rumore at Avalanche Engineering out in Colorado. Steve cleverly designed the device into a steel toolbox, making it portable—just the ticket for someone tinkering with HHO/water/hydrogen/Brown’s Gas­powered conveyances. The unit consists of eight plastic bottles with stainless-steel electrodes, connected up in series—parallel to the vehicle’s battery. The cells are filled with plain ol’ water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide electrolyte to conduct electricity. A hose conveys the HHO output to the engine.

It took me a few days of puttering around in my shop to get the electrolyzer up and running. I’m using an HKS Camp 2 onboard computer, hooked into an LCD monitor that’s suction-cupped to the windscreen, to check things like mass airflow, fuel-injector pulse width, battery voltage and, of course, fuel economy.

But guess what? My fuel economy is exactly the same, whether the HHO generator is turned on or not. And that’s exactly what I expected. This isn’t anecdotal evidence from several tankfuls of gasoline. It’s steady-state, flat-road testing, and I don’t even pretend to have actual economy numbers. I’m using fuel-injector pulse widths directly from the OBD II port. That means I’m measuring the actual time the injectors are open and delivering fuel. When the HHO generator is toggled on, there’s no change. And when it’s turned back off, there’s no change. Well, the computer’s system voltage sags a couple of tenths of a volt, indicating the current drain to run the electrolyzer.

This is not a great surprise, but it didn’t take long for someone in the comments section following the article to invoke the oil conspiracy charge:

As an owner of an auto repair facility that installs and configures HHO Cells i have to disagree with your findings. I am not surprised by your results considering your methods and your obvious opinion going in that it would never work. It does in fact work when installed and configured correctly. Your article brings to mind the weak attempt Mythbusters described on their show. Needless to say my high opinion of Popular Mechanics and MythBusters is not so anymore. By the way, i wouldn’t be surprised if the oil companies financed your obviously biased experiment.

Of course I have to point out that since the commenter installs and configures HHO cells, he has a vested interest in claiming that they work. One good accusation deserves another.

23 thoughts on “The Hydrogen Electrolyzer Debunked?”

  1. OMG, read through the comments. Look at this beauty:

    “I have been using a custom built HHO generator but I use wideband O2 sensor and sensor computer to compensate for leaning out the engine. Yes, my little nissan sentra went from 26 MPG to 58 MPG. This is still while driving 75 MPH on the freeway!!! I used the information on to do this. Sure, you could add additional things such as fuel additives to break the covalent bonds in your gasoline, but this works great for me. HHO hype and know how is at that point that its similar to going to a great resturant and trying this great meal. Sure, you might be able to get the recipe, but unless you can duplicate the exact way that it was created all the results will be different.”

    Additives to break the covalent bonds in your gasoline? The level of scientific illiteracy is shocking. No wonder these devices sell and have die hard proponents.

    Well, I better get back to rubbing a magnet over my chest. Keeps cancer away, you know.

  2. I don’t know if these things work, and I ave no vested interest one way or the other.

    But there’s just as much scientific illiteracy on the skeptical side. Automotive engines are spectacularly inefficient in reference to BTUs in versus power out. So people aren’t talking about trying to get more than 100% out of fuel. They are talking about trying to convert the wasted energy into useful energy.

    They probably don’t work in unmodified engines (just like ethanol is less efficient in unmodified engines). But in modified engines?

  3. Automotive engines are spectacularly inefficient in reference to BTUs in versus power out.

    I agree. I have pointed out numerous times that it is in fact possible that an engine built especially for ethanol – and with the appropriate compression ratio – can get the same fuel efficiency as a gasoline engine. This, even though ethanol has 30% fewer BTUs. That’s because compression ratio is important. That’s the whole concept behind the diesel engine. And that’s why I am not quick to completely denounce these electrolyzer concepts. I am skeptical, and I demand good data. But I do change my mind.

    Cheers, Robert

  4. I’m not surprised that the device didn’t increase fuel economy, but I am surprised that it didn’t decrease fuel economy a little. Wouldn’t the extra drain on the battery cause the alternator to work harder?

  5. I had another thought entirely unrelated to everything I’ve seen posted anywhere : which may well mean it’s naive/hairbrained as hell.
    No matter. If hydrogen/oxygen – being so explosive – could be used in a ‘spark’ for ignition application rather than worrying about energy production per se – varying engine timing might prove interesting.

  6. >> my little nissan sentra went from 26 MPG to 58 MPG.

    I just can’t understand how anyone buys (or sells) a “small” car that does 26 MPG in the first place. My car’s bigger than a Sentra and does over 40. You can’t buy a Sentra in the British Isles, but a reasonable equivalent, say the 1.5L 5-door Nissan Micra does over 50 MPG. Ok, that’s a diesel injection, and admittedly our European gallon is 20% bigger … but, still, you could buy a smaller Micra and do even better. Is there any reason American-sold cars are so inefficient, apart from historically — and still comparatively — low petrol prices? From this side of the pond it just sounds batty!

  7. OK. I am not one to ever make a decision without testing it out first. So I am. I am in process of building one now based on my research. But based on the report here, if this thing works, I am screwed. It doesn’t matter what my findings are, Mythbusters etal hold the light for all to see. This sucks, pardon my French … But lets remember, Mythbusters and the Hurst corporation are deep up to their armpits in oil investments. Would they lie to us? No, thats ridiculous! … These writers know who butters their bread.

  8. “I’m not surprised that the device didn’t increase fuel economy, but I am surprised that it didn’t decrease fuel economy a little. Wouldn’t the extra drain on the battery cause the alternator to work harder?”

    Might be proof that it’s doing something.

  9. OK, I’m not a physicist, but if the laws of thermodynamics hold, then an engine equipped with an HHO generator still needs a total energy input that is greater than its total energy output. As far as I can see, proponents claim that far less gasoline is needed because energy is provided by the HHO, which is in turn generated by current from the battery, which in turn must get its energy input from the alternator, which in turn gets its energy from the gasoline and HHO fuels. At each step there is energy loss. The gasoline comes from outside the system. To get the HHO, you need to input more energy than the HHO itself provides, which apparently comes partly from outside the system (gasoline) and partly from inside (battery power). Since the internal loop must — if the laws of thermodynamics apply to these engines — run an energy deficit, that deficit must be compensated for by energy from outside the system, but it’s claimed that it can get by on much less gasoline. Hmmm… Therefore, it looks like perpetual motion to me. How do you make up for the obvious energy deficit in the HHO-battery-alternator-engine loop if you are using less gasoline?

    Specifically, I would like to know how RR explains this.

  10. It would’ve been better if you had followed instructions and installed a map sensor to control the amount of oxygen the car sensor recieves. So of course you wont see any gains. the mix was to lean so the car dumped in more gas. Read everything before you install!!

  11. Rice farmer …

    “OK, I’m not a physicist,”

    I had a physicist tell me once that you had to be a University in order to file a patent. I’m not making that up, thats what she said. A damn good physicist too. But the point you are missing is just what is it that provides this energy. You are negating the hydrogen issue. Remember that horrible day that Challenger flashed out in the sky? That was hydrogen. Look closely at that blast. Its size compared to the shuttle. The shuttle was a tiny pin mark in the sky just before the blast. And the blast covered the whole sky. Hydrogen has a tremendous amount of energy on board. Take a bit of time and do the math. The math is the important part. The real math I mean, not the stuff you get off your cereal box.

  12. Opit …

    ‘varying engine timing might prove interesting.’

    According to my studies, that is exactly what must be done. The flame spread of hydrogen gas is something like 20 miles per second. Don’t quote me on that, look it up. If I recall it was faster than that. But gasoline is much much less even in its gaseous state, and even worse in the liquid state a modern carb produces. (Its atomized as well as vaporized, the reason for poor efficiency.) Liquid gasoline is slow to evaporate, unlike liquid hydrogen which is much faster. Your gasoline engine has the timing retarded to several degrees above top dead center. This means in a typical gas engine, the spark is introduced before the piston reaches the top of its stroke. You need this time to allow the gasoline droplets to vaporize under pressure, and get the most bang for your buck. But hydrogen is ready to go as soon as it enters the cylinder. So you can wait until after top dead center for ignition, greatly reducing the losses incurred in a retarded fire. It will burn completely before the piston finishes its power stroke. No downward thrust on the crank for the other cylinders to fight. From my initial investigation in this, I think I will be selling my Exxon stock real soon Opit.

  13. if the laws of thermodynamics hold, then an engine equipped with an HHO generator still needs a total energy input that is greater than its total energy output.

    This is correct. However, there is a little more to the story than just BTUs. Consider a diesel engine. Diesel has about 10% more BTUs than gasoline, but the efficiency is 30% higher. This is because diesels have a higher compression ratio, and get more useful work out of the fuel.

    Now, I am not saying that anything like this is going on with the electrolyzer, nor am I endorsing it in any way. I remain highly skeptical. I am just pointing out that there could be more to the story than just BTUs.


  14. OK, thanks. I too am not dismissing this out of hand, but skepticism is required. Dragmit says that hydrogen contains a lot of energy. But no matter what the energy content of hydrogen, you still need to invest more energy in its production than you get when burning it. Therefore, if we ignore the gasoline input from outside the system for the moment, the internal loop from HHO to engine to alternator to battery to HHO must run a deficit, assuming this is not perpetual motion. That system is a net consumer of energy. It cannot continue to run itself, and it cannot propel the vehicle. So as I see it, you still have to propel the vehicle AND make up for the energy loss. As such, why is LESS gasoline required?

    Maybe there is a good explanation for this, but I have yet to hear it.

  15. Ricefarmer, looking at things in terms of undifferentiated energy confuses things. A better way to look at it is the kinds and types of work (in the scientific sense) done as a result of burning the fuel (eg, moving pistons is one kind of work, general conductive heating of the engine is another). As other posters note, what appears to being claimed is that the additive results in more of the work being done when the fuel is burned being work that drives the engine pistons. I’m sceptical that this is actually happening — an experiment which only a few gurus are canny enough to do “exactly the right way” to get a result is generally either data misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

  16. My understanding the Hydrogen Electrolyzer was in relation to diesels.

    In a diesel, a ignition gas such as propane or hydrogen supposedly increases HP output from the same amount of diesel, by consuming more of the diesel injected into the cylinder. The science for this is relatively solid: all diesels waste a significant amount of diesel fuel to soot & unburned raw fuel.

    I have never seen numbers though that the "assistant gas" such as propane or hydrogen was the cause of the increase in HP output beyond what energy the gas itself added to the final reaction.

    I don't see this working in a gasoline engine. Below full throttle operation, gasoline engines lose most of their power in "pumping loss". Ie., they lose a lot of power pumping against the butterfly valve, and not recuperating that energy (diesels keep most of the energy in the compressed gasses in the gas which helps drive the piston back down, in combination with the burning diesel/air). Also, current gasoline technology burns nearly all the fuel in the mixture.

    So I don't buy it for gasoline engines, but consider it plausible for diesels.

  17. One more point: how the faster burning propane or hydrogen could possibly “help” burn the total amount of diesel injected…

    If I remember correctly, it was that the faster burning hydrogen or propane would heat the diesel fuel, completely vaporizing it and causing it to burn more completely, rather than having partially consumed droplets blown out the exhaust…

  18. dragmit: “But the point you are missing is just what is it that provides this energy. You are negating the hydrogen issue… Hydrogen has a tremendous amount of energy on board.

    But that cannot be the issue here. The “hydrogen” starts out bound in H2O before electrolysis. After combustion it is once again H2O. One reaction is the exact reciprocal of the other, same kCals per mole, everything. There is no net energy gain, even assuming 100% efficiency in the electrolysis (and in reality there will be a loss). Whatever the merits of the “more efficient burning” argument, the process cannot possibly have anything to do with hydrogen’s “tremendous amount of energy”.

  19. It is clear, that we are going the wrong way, it takes more energy to run a fuel injection pump than a carburetor, a lot more.. you have to understand that the mixture inside your combustion chamber is the the most important issue not the energy that it takes to make it.

  20. You need to lean out the fuel mixture while adding hydrogen. If you simply add hydrogen to a regular motor, you’re injecting the usual amount of gasoline plus hydrogen. It’s not gonna change the mileage.

  21. I have yet to see anyone speak to the fact that using HHO in an engine allows for the extraction of more energy from gasoline/diesel fuels by reducing waste.

    This seems to be the main point that a lot of folks are missing out on, IMHO.

    HHO doesn’t create energy so much as liberate it. Under normal conditions, only about 25% of the energy stored in petroleum-based fuels is used for mechanical work before being deposited into the exhaust line.

    Gasoline molecules are long, multi-chained branches of hydrocarbons that burn slowly, especially when compared to hydrogen molecules that combust with 3x the detonation velocity. These hydrocarbon chains don’t ignite oxygen all at once. Instead, they continue to burn after exiting the engine into the exhaust line and on out the tailpipe, where the energy given off is wasted as heat and emission products. That these molecules continue to burn even after they exit the vehicle should give an idea of available energy that is ordinarily wasted.

    The idea behind using HHO in automobiles is to make more efficient use of petroleum fuels that are normally under-utilized. Mixing HHO with petroleum fuels before combustion/compression creates a more complete burn that translates into more available energy.

    Tuning the engine so that it can make use of this increase in available energy is what creates more power and/or fuel savings.

    As far as I can see, HHO is an effective way of making better use of petroleum fuels in existing engine lines. The degree to which you are capable of tuning and tweaking the engine will play a significant role in yielding the fuel savings, power increases and/or emission reductions that HHO systems promise.

  22. You guys seem to be missing the point. Think about how a turbo charger or super charger works. It is not creating more energy than is required to operate it. It is simply making the engine run more efficiently. The same is with the HHO. The extra oxygen plays as much a part as the hydrogen in making the combustion of gasoline more efficient. All of this nonsense of Thermodynamics doesn't even apply in this case Mr. Professor, unless you are running off of pure HHO fuel in a closed system (which in this case he was not). The simple fact is that the combustion of gasoline is so inefficient in most engines that very little is required to drastically improve it. So to a certain point exponential gains can be acheived with very little energy input. This is not breaking the laws of physics any more than a catalyst, enzyme, or turbocharge does. Modern vehicles will need modifications because of the sensors and timing are optimized for pure gasoline. You will also need modifications to the computer when you install a turbocharger, supercharger, or nitrousoxide system.

    Don't abuse your high school physics knowledge and blindly quote thermodynamics laws to sound like a smart skeptic. There are no violations here. And the other guys should give some credit to the original author, he actually tried to do the experiment instead of sit around and theorize. He may not have considered the sensors, timing, etc. but at least he was willing to do more than talk.

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