Water Is Not A Fuel

Last week I received a press release touting the latest “game-changer in zero-emissions energy.” In this article I take readers through a few steps you can undertake to evaluate such claims.

Note: I have spoken with the CEO of this company since this article first published, and I will provide an update next week.

Each week I receive press releases about “game-changing technologies” in the energy space. The number of these technologies that ultimately end up as game-changers is pretty close to zero, but I don’t immediately disregard such claims unless they clearly violate laws of science.

I am, nevertheless, naturally skeptical until convinced otherwise.

Such was the case this week when I received a press release from Australian-Israeli startup Electriq~Global. The press release read in part:

Australian-Israeli company Electriq~Global and Dutch company Eleqtec have entered into an agreement to launch Electriq~Global’s water-based fuel technology in the Netherlands. Together they plan to launch Electriq~Fuel’s recycling plants, and introduce eMobility applications for trucks, barges and mobile generators.

Comprised of 60% water, Electriq~Fuel is a game-changer in zero-emissions energy. The innovative fuel is a cost-efficient alternative to batteries and compressed hydrogen. When compared to green energy storage solutions like lithium-ion batteries or compressed hydrogen, Electriq~Global achieves a greater range at a lower cost. The energy density potential of the technology is up to 15 times that of electric batteries currently in use in electric vehicles.”

When a claim implies that water is being used as a fuel, it always increases my skepticism. But, I replied to this particular press release and told them I would need additional information before acting on the press release:

I would need to know some details they probably aren’t willing to give up. For example, water itself can’t be a fuel. It’s a combustion product. The only way to turn it into a fuel is to add energy somewhere. I could boil the water and turn it into steam. I could electrolyze the water to make hydrogen. I could add something (like sodium metal) that would react with the water to produce hydrogen. But each of these steps involves energy addition into the system.”

That’s the catch with any of these systems that seemingly rely on water as a fuel. Water can’t be a fuel, just like carbon dioxide can’t be a fuel. These are combustion products. They can both be converted into fuels, or into energy carriers, but that requires additional energy inputs. (In the case of hydropower, nature has added those energy inputs). And the laws of thermodynamics require that the energy inputs to create a fuel will always be greater than the energy you get back when using that fuel.

For example, I can create hydrogen from water by passing electricity through it. I can then burn that hydrogen for energy, but it will always be less than the amount of energy I consumed in producing the hydrogen.

It might, for instance, require four British thermal units (BTUs) of electricity to create three BTUs of hydrogen from water. There are cases where that’s economically justified, but you want to be sure that the four initial BTUs that were used couldn’t be used to power the final application. It is generally more efficient to use four BTUs of electricity to power a vehicle than to convert that into three BTUs of hydrogen to power the vehicle.

I did receive a response, but it was just a press kit that went into a few more details. The press kit did acknowledge that the water “reacts” with a catalyst to produce hydrogen. As a nitpick, a catalyst increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself being consumed in the reaction. If the substance is actually reacting with water it isn’t a catalyst, it is a reactant.