Fire from Water

Based on some of the comments following my post on the “water car”, I think several people misunderstood the point. It was not to debunk the water car. You can in fact run a car with water as one of the reactants. I could even run a car on crushed ice or Jell-O, if I used the right second reactant.

My point was merely to show how a car could be run on water, and to further point out that it requires a second, very reactive substance. In other words, the “water car” is not running solely on water. The other point was that the reactive substance will always take more energy to produce than you will get back from splitting the water. That’s simply pointing out the thermodynamics. It doesn’t mean that there might not be times that it makes economic sense to do this – just that there is much more to the story than a car that runs on water.

Keeping with that theme, here are some videos showing how water can react with various metals/compounds to produce fire – and this should give you an indication of what’s happening in the water car.

First up, if you put lithium (or any of several other alkali metals) in water, it reacts explosively. Hydrogen is evolved, and so much heat is produced that the hydrogen ignites:

Lithium + Water = Fire

Second is a reaction I have known of for over 30 years. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, we often went hunting at night. I had a carbide lamp that I used to produce light. The way it worked is that I would put solid calcium carbide pellets (CaC2) in a bottom compartment, and water in the top compartment. The water dripped on the calcium carbide and formed acetylene (C2H2) according to the following reaction:

CaC2 + 2 H2O → C2H2 + Ca(OH)2

Of course acetylene is quite flammable, and this was burned to produce the light for our hunts. Much like the “water car”, I had a “water lamp.” (In fact, one time the lamp caught on fire on top of my head; so there are some safety considerations). One thing to point out is that it takes a lot of energy to make calcium carbide. This is the energy you get back when you burn the acetylene, but it is never as much energy as it took to make the calcium carbide in the first place. Here is a demonstration of someone lighting a carbide lamp.

Water + Calcium Carbide = Fire

The moral? The water car isn’t such a mystery, if you understand a little bit about the chemistry. The question is whether a water car can be cost competitive, given the need for the second reactant. My suspicion is that it will usually be more cost effective to use energy to run a PHEV than to use energy to produce a metal compound that will react with water to run a water car. The reason I say that is that you can’t escape the energy inputs for making the metal compound, and that energy is most efficiently used directly in the car, rather than via the water intermediate.

Note: Following this post, my Internet access is going to be disconnected, and then I will be on the road until Friday night. Responses will be infrequent.

31 thoughts on “Fire from Water”

  1. I seem to remember Ed Begley Jr. promoting a car that ran on some sort of metal hydride as an energy carrier about 10 years ago.

    A bit off topic, but Al Gore has made the news again. I’m a bit puzzled by this. It is hard to believe that Mr. Gore could install energy improvements and manage to use MORE electricity than last year. On the other hand, Tennessee Center for Policy Research is unlikely to get the story wrong and risk its credibility. 213,000 kWh is a LOT of power. That is about 6 times more than we used in Houston. And we have teenagers!

  2. There’s a fun show called Braniac (I think it’s British). In one episode, they mixed various alkali metals with water, working their way up the periodic table. They made a bathtub explode. Youtube has it here.

  3. I spent a good part of my chemical career of 30 years using the hydrides of sodium, potassium, and lithium and the metals themselves as reagents. They are exceedingly reactive. For example potassium hydride spontaneously flames in air (at least in humid South Texas). They are most certainly not going to be for sale in grocery stores! They are stoichiometric reagents and not catalysts so they must be regenerated at considerable energy cost.

    Unfortunately, people’s desire to believe there is a free lunch leads them to believe almost anything. The tragedy is that it allows people to delude themselves into thinking there are simple solutions to complex problems and not deal with those problems until they become disasters. I am afraid that is where we are today.

  4. I may have an answer to the Al Gore mystery. This is purely speculation though but dripping with irony.

    Part of the answer is that improvements to the home weren’t made until November. The Gore’s supposedly installed a ground source heating/cooling system as part of their improvement. This systems pump water or other heat transfer fluid in a closed loop with the ground. To adequately assess the Gore’s energy usage you would need both their gas and electric bill. It may be that increases in electricity were offset with decreases in natural gas.

    It turns out that the winter in Nashville was unseasonably cool. (so much for global warming 😉 This likely increased the electrical needs and decreased the solar system output (overcast skies).

    Still if you are Al Gore, you really need to get out in front of this issue. He claims to tell everyone else how to live but doesn’t seem to manage his own affairs very well. 231,000 kWh is a lot of energy. (I used 37,468 kWh in 2007.) Even if it was green power, he should be more responsible.

  5. You forget water in its gaseous phase! Vehicles have been running on that for centuries.

    The BBC’s Working Lunch business programme recently reported on a company here in the UK which is working on steam technology to reduce primary fuel consumption. They use heat exchangers to extract much of the heat that usually does out of the exhaust pipe, and then use the steam to do useful work.

    Their first project is to use the steam to replace the second diesel engine in refrigerated trucks, the one which drives the refrigeration unit.

    Their second project is a lot more fun. It’s a two-rotor Wankel rotary engine. The first rotor is driven by petrol, the second by steam.

    If you’re in the UK, you may be able to watch the report on the BBC’s iPlayer.

  6. ~ “You forget water in its gaseous phase! Vehicles have been running on that for centuries.


    True, and quite a good catch on your part.

    But they still require a high energy input to get liquid water to that phase.

  7. In principle, using alkali metals to power a car through hydrogen release is not all that different than a Zinc-Air “battery”, though having to go from water to H2 through a proton exchange fuel cell probably substantially less efficient. IIRC, Zn-air batteries are set up to deliver electric current directly without any intermediaries.

    Perhaps this technology (mischaracterized as a “water” powered car) is some form of engineered chemistry that allows an alkali metal or aluminum etc to contact water and skip directly to electron potential difference without first going through the formation of H2 followed by oxidation of H2 with a fuel cell (which would waste a lot of heat).

    That could potentially be interesting, especially if the reaction could be easily reversed (creating a novel form of battery) by injecting electrical energy into the system.

  8. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, we often went hunting at night.

    I’m sure you meant to write:

    When I was growing up in Oklahoma, we often went hunting for cows at night.


  9. So we can all agree that water itself will not run an engine without some additional energy input. But as Ian points out, the steam engine may be making a comeback.

    ICE engines watse a huge amount of energy as heat out the tailpipe and radiator. Ian mentioned a UK company that wants to use that waste heat to drive the compressors in refigerated trucks. I think Honda and BMW have experimented with steam in a hybrid mode reclaiming some wasted energy.

    My favorite is Cyclone Power, a US company that is developing the highly efficient Green Revolution Engine and another called the Waste Heat Engine. They claim that the efficiency of the GRE will be in the 30+% range, better than a gasoline ICE and close to diesel. With the huge advantage of being able to run on any liquid or gaseous fuel. Also, they require no transmission, muffler, radiator, or oil pump.

    The WHE runs at lower temperatures than the GRE and is designed to recapture wasted heat to run extra stuff, this is similar to what the UK company is doing.

    The WHE engine could be used to run some sort of kingofkaty hybrid system.

  10. Dennis Moore – I like it! It isn’t a Stirling engine (which I prefer), But rather a supercritical steam engine. It should be capable of efficiencies of around 43% or so.

    You would have difficulty directly driving the wheels of a car with this engine as the whole system would have to come up to temperature before you could generate a lot of power. But paired with an electric drive or PHEV system this could work well.

    My “KingofKaty” hybrid offering would be an electric drive vehicle where you pair the engine and battery pack you need for the type of driving you want to do. For a commuter car you might opt for a smaller engine and larger battery pack capable of charging overnight. If you want to drive long distances you might opt for the smaller battery pack and the larger engine.

  11. A little OT, but this from China today: “Oil prices sank nearly $4 Thursday after the Chinese government said it would lift subsidies on gasoline and diesel in a move that could curb demand from the country’s rapidly growing economy.”
    The world’s demand for crude oil is waning everywhere, except China and in oil-producing countries.
    China has been investing in domestic energy programs, and is now moving to cut demand.
    We may see the Mother of all Oil Gluts within a couple years.

  12. On the topic of using water to recover waste heat and improve ICE efficiency…

    Gearheads and hot-rodders know the name Crower from the company’s line of performance cams, etc. Well, check out the six-stroke that Bruce himself came up with:

  13. China did raise oil/diesel prices by a reported 17%, but the subsidy is still pretty large. It’s virtually impossible to improve fuel efficiency more than 4-5%/year, so as long as China’s economy keeps growing 10%/year their oil consumption will increase. And I guarantee they will not let fuel prices rise enough to choke the economy.

    In other news, Nanosolar says their little $1.65m coating machine has 1 GW annual throughput and has the video to “prove” it. To put this in perspective, total worldwide PV production was <3 GW last year. Nanosolar is not exactly hype-shy, but this is still pretty impressive.

  14. Fuel efficiency and fuel use are not the same thing.
    People get out of cars and ride busses. Decrease in fuel consumption; fleet remains the same.
    Even more different is China’s import of crude and fuel efficiency. As they develop domestic or captive fuel sources (such as Indonesian jatropha plantations), they will import relatively less. They know how to nuke up. They want C-T-L. They have a huge presence in lithium batteries, and at least one automaker planning a Volt-type EV.
    At anything more than $90 a barrel, they probably will pursue all those options.
    From here, I think we see either a huge price correction, or Peak Demand. Is it not inevitable?
    I don’t see any doomsday scenarios that make sense, but I do see world of EVs, nuked up, in cities with cleaner air, quieter streets and more wealth.
    The U.S. may fumble due to decadance and ineptitude (we build mansions, not our economy), but other nations — notably Germany and Japan — come to mind. Germany’s oil demand down 10 percent last year, and they are just starting.

  15. Kingofkaty,
    The turn of the century Stanley Steamer took 15 min to heat up, later the Doble steam car took a few minutes. Harry Schoel, inventor of the cyclone engine claims less than 15 seconds from cold start to go.

    I like the potential of this engine. Hopefully the small applications (weed trimmer, lawn mower, generator) will show if it works as claimed.

    I also see big advantages for military applications if it works. Burn any fuel and lower heat signature.

    Hopefully they can get a car put together and start driving it around Detroit.

    Here are a few videos from their website. The first two are about 10 min with a commercial in the middle. The last is about 4 minutes.

    If you are a college student, grab a beer a take a big drink every time Harry says “heat exchanger”

    Green Revolution Engine video

    Waste Heat Engine video

    popular science video

  16. Fuel efficiency and fuel use are not the same thing.

    I’m talking about economic fuel efficiency, i.e. GDP/bbl. China has a big program in place to improve GDP/bbl by 5% but they’re only getting about 3%. As such their 10% GDP growth rate translates to 7% oil demand growth.

    All the things you mention are real, you just can’t ramp them fast enough to improve GDP/bbl by much more than 5%/year. After the 1979 oil shock the US reduced oil demand 6%/year for three years with zero GDP growth, but we couldn’t sustain it. GDP/bbl improved only 5% the next year then 4% each of the next two. Average improvement during the “high oil price” years of 1979-85 was 5%. And note most of this improvement came from massive reductions in oil used for heating and electricity. It’s much harder to reduce oil usage in transport. If every single car sold in the US this year was a PHEV it’d only reduce our oil consumption 3%.

    BTW, most analysts are saying China’s recent price increase will actually boost demand. How can this be? The old price was so unprofitable for refiners they cut back on oil imports. This caused shortages and long lines at the pump. With the new prices refiners can afford to boost output and meet their customers’ demand.

  17. Off topic, but I saw that Robert’s new company posted a profit today:

    Accsys jumps into profit

    LONDON (SHARECAST) – Environmental science technology firm Accsys posted its first profit for the year, beating analysts’ expectations, as its Accoya technology generated revenues.

    Pre-tax profit for the year came in at £5.4m compared to the loss of £22.1m last year, prompting the group to pay a maiden dividend of €0.01 per share.

    Revenues rose to €27.3m from €50,000 last year thanks to the first year’s production from the Accoya technology validation plant, fees from the Accoya License Agency and initial payments under the first two technology licenses.

  18. Doggydog–
    US demand for oil started going back up in the second half of the 1980s, but oil was cheap again…I dount it would have gobne back up otherwise….we should have taxed consumption….
    China’s demand was up only 4.7 percent last year, according to BP…this year, with the quake, the Olympics etc, hard to know…..still, if they go up 5 percent, and we go down 2 percent, it about cancels out….
    The 80s oil-switching is true, but also true this time we have more advanced technologies….they will and are taking years to ramp up, nevertheless, if this price is maintained, they will get ramped up….and will be somewhat long-term changes…meaning gluts ahead…..
    Again, if the GM Volt or any other EV really works, what is to stop any developed economy from reducing its fossil crude oil consumption by even 70 percent, while growing GDP, and obtaining cleaner air, quieter streets and less import bills (more domestic jobs)?
    Frankly, we could have a jobs boom in America, crush OPEC, get cleaner air…jeez, where is the downside in this?
    If the Volt works, why won’t it happen?
    Just two answers: 1) Oil prices go down.
    2)We are so stupid, we don’t buy Volts even when gasoline is $10 a gallon, but we occupy Mideast nations at our expense, and still don’t get the oil.
    Okay so maybe 2) can happen, but I hope not.

  19. Stay away from Cyclone Power guys. I’ve read their latest earnings report. In short…they don’t earn,and they don’t have a plugged nickle left to spend. This guy may have had an engine worth looking at,but nobody bought it.

    I think oil and gas from bug poop is the future. The science is sound,and it’s affordable and scaleable. I just wish I could buy shares in LS9.

  20. I’m following a company called IOC. They seem to have lucked into 7 or 8 tcf of natural gas in Papua New Guinea. Maybe more. They’ll know for sure in the next few weeks. It’s either a 10 bagger,or it’ll hit the skids.

  21. This reminds me of the widely circulated news story — I think it was last year — about a guy who had found out how to make salt water burn by zapping it with a machine he’d made (originally for a different purpose). There was this flurry of excitement, with people proclaiming that we’re saved because a new source of energy had been discovered, but no one asking the obvious question: How much energy did his zapper use?

    But I guess this gullibility is behind the tenacious belief in “free energy.”

  22. I’m still excited about the burning salt water rice farmer. What if an RF generator can make hydrogen more cheaply than the hydrolysis method? The expense of making hydrogen has to be brought down considerably if hydrogen cars are ever going to be a reality. Not that I expect them to. I’m betting bug poop saves the day…

  23. I think oil and gas from bug poop is the future.
    Close, but no cigar. Fermentation just isn’t efficient enough to compete with thermo-chemical processing at the large scale required for meaningful energy production. LS9? Not a chance! A GM bug is going to need sterile feed ($$$) to survive. Nice theory, but not workable.

    The real solution would be to put waste products (starting perhaps with just the waste paper that the so-called paperless office generates) into a thermo-chemical facility (BTL, either Choren or Range Fuels) and produce a liquid fuel that way.

  24. US demand for oil started going back up in the second half of the 1980s, but oil was cheap again

    Benny, I only discussed 1979-85. Oil prices didn’t crash until February 1986. US oil consumption fell on flat GDP from 1979-82 then rose a few percent on rising GDP from 1982-85. The GDP/bbl ratio over this entire “high oil price” period improved 5%/year.

    China’s demand was up only 4.7 percent last year, according to BP

    EIA says 5.3%. But single year numbers are highly volatile. Both EIA and BP show 8% annual growth over the last 4-5 years as prices rose. Forecasts say China oil demand will grow 5% this year and next, short of ecnomic upheaval I see no way around that.

  25. Maury, be very careful with IOC. They are legendary for hyping their oil/gas assets and never delivering. Short sellers I know are amazed the execs aren’t in jail. Amazed but happy, as shorting IOC after a burst of hype is money in the bank. I’ve even come close to shorting it myself a couple times, and I never go short except for arbitrage.

  26. Optimist,it’s not theory any more. LS9 already has a bug producing crude oil. According to them,they can fabricate a bug that eats whatever plant material they like. Presumably,it could eat wood chips,or even the paper waste you described. I don’t think they’re full of hype. They already have the money they need,so why hype at this point?

  27. doggydodworld,I noticed IOC has a 48% short position. It’s time on the naked short list is a record,LOL. Still,8tcf is a LOT of natural gas. Look at the pipeline alaska is contemplating to get at 3tcf. I’m not putting a fortune into it anyway.

  28. A bit OT, but….

    I want everybody to know my buzzwords have been stolen. See this from WSJ:

    “As early as 2005, gasoline demand growth in the U.S. started to tail-off, thanks to steadily rising gas prices. But the breaking point seems to have come this year, with gas around $4.00 a gallon, says a new study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates. The group says 2007 may have marked “peak demand” for gas in the U.S.”

    Peak Demand?

    I guess I will have to copyright the words or something. I have been thinking about blogging about the topic, mostly referencing new technologies, and where demand is falling…sadly, The Energy Blog, which used to showcase many wonderful technologies, seemed to have expired….

  29. Dudes Check this out–
    SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Global oil demand is likely to contract 0.6% in 2008 for the first time in 15 years, said J.P. Morgan Chase late Friday. Analysts led by Joseph Lupton forecast global oil demand will fall another 0.2% in 2009 as demand dampens in emerging markets, whose appetite offset declines in developed markets’ oil consumption in 2006 and 2007. Higher prices and weaker global economic growth are likely to temper demand growth in the emerging countries while developed countries’ consumption continues to fall. “As impressive as [emerging markets] demand has been, the tide of global oil demand is set to turn,” said the J.P. Morgan analysts in a note.

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