The great H2O hoax… people just never learn

There are very many ways in which a car can be powered. Some of these methods have entered large scale mainstream use — petrol, electricity, ethanol, biodiesel, LPG — while some, though they worked, were not commercially or ethically viable — chicken guano, dog (yes, dogs have powered motor vehicles), charcoal (believe it!), compressed air, liquid nitrogen and tequila.

That whole statement is true, just so you know. There are cars that have run on the tipple that, when not properly regulated, often leads to a night full of bad decisions and a morning full of regret.

The number of people who understand exactly how a car engine works is a very small one, as can be seen every week on Wednesday when the Car Clinic segment runs (forget what you read in the paper, you should see the stuff that does not get published.

It is tragic). This makes the motoring industry prime real estate for establishing hoaxes as outrageous and elaborate as they are creative and daring: one major manufacturer once attended a global climate conference and fronted an electric van; only that it was not electric, it was a regular petrol-powered van with the words “Electric Vehicle” painted on the side. The attendees were none the wiser.

We have had manufacturers take liberties with statistics, be it power output (Ford with the Mustang GT 390) or top speed (Jaguar with the E-Type) in the hope that the cowardly and afraid-to-think-for-themselves people who buy those cars will never bother to countercheck those figures. Thank God for the motoring press.

One thing that cannot happen now and is not likely to happen any time soon is the achievement of water propulsion in a road-going motor vehicle. Water cannot burn, and water does not create or store electricity; these two being the main ways of powering an automobile.

We have had cars powered by steam, but these were monstrous contraptions dating back to the days when we had ducking stools instead of electric chairs for punishing those who cannot adapt properly to society.

This has not stopped some really determined types from trying to revive H2O horsepower. If we judge them by their doings, then they all deserve to be strapped to a ducking stool and dunked several times in the same water with which they are trying to fool us.

Louis Enricht: 1844-1923

Mr Enricht ran two lies, the first being that he could run a car on water, and the second that his secret formula was “inexpensive”. He called up the press and set up a demonstration where he first invited the reporters to inspect the motor vehicle just to make sure there were no auxiliary fuel tanks.

Having established that, he then proceeded to do his act: he asked one of them to bring him a bucket of regular tap water, to which he added a green substance.

Mr Enricht then poured the resultant solution into the fuel tank of the car (nobody says what car this was), cranked the engine and voila! The engine turned over and ran. He was in. Just to sweeten the deal, the exhaust smelt of almonds.

Among his most notable victims was Henry Ford himself, who paid Enricht a visit in 1918 in the company of Ford’s New York area manager.

Enricht had admitted that the almond smell came from cyanide (readers of spy novels would recognise this as a respiratory poison favoured as a suicide agent by carriers of sensitive information), but he would not reveal anything else until his lawyers had patented his formula.

The creator of the Model T offered to buy the formula from Enricht, who had by then attracted millions of investment dollars from his demonstration.

Some $100,000 (Sh8.7million) was put up by one Hiram Maxim as a down payment on a million-dollar investment; the rest to be paid when the formula was revealed — but this was later withdrawn (allegedly).

A banker named Yoakum was more enthralled and put up a similar amount, after which he was given an envelope reported to contain the secret to the water magic with the promise that Yoakum would not open it until the million dollars was paid.

Then the plot got really thick. Enricht was accused of being a German spook. This prompted good old Yoakum to unseal the envelope (breach of contract) only for him to discover that it contained a few low-value treasury bonds. Ticked off, he ran to court but his attempt to have Enricht tried for treason failed.

A clever fellow by the name of Miller Reese Hutchison observed Enricht’s demonstration and came to the conclusion that Louis was using a mixture of liquid acetylene and nail polish remover.

This mix is more expensive than ordinary petrol to start with, and oddly enough, when mixed with water, will run an engine. However, the amount of corrosion and wear that the engine will experience will ensure that engine life will be measured in hours instead of years. The cyanide was used to mask the smell of acetone.

That he escaped unscathed from this escapade gave Enricht the gall to try another scam four years later, this time claiming that he could distill gasoline from peat.

Peat is essentially swamp material. In true human fashion, again investors came flocking to him, but there was one district attorney (Nassau County) who didn’t like the look of Enricht, and decided to investigate him and his accounts, only for the DA to discover that investor money was being blown away in gambling exercises.

On the back foot, Enricht tried (and failed) to demonstrate in court how his “machine” could produce naphtha from swamp material, and the unimpressed judge found Enricht guilty of grand larceny and threw him in the clink for a good seven years. Enricht claimed that the disassembly and reassembly of his equipment caused the fiasco but the judge would have none of it.

Poor Louis passed away at the age of 79 shortly afterwards, just when he was due for parole. Science will not miss him.

Sam Leslie Leach:

Now, Mr Leach’s experiment actually makes sense from a scientific point of view. His idea was to create a “hydrogen generator” that used “electrolysis” to produce hydrogen from water. The hydrogen would then be combusted in the engine to produce… water. This was in the 1970s, and this can be done.

However, science has not gone as far as uncovering an efficient way of achieving this; and by efficient I mean less energy-intensive and with a net-gain in energy production (energy released exceeds energy consumed).

The commonest methods of production of hydrogen are the gasification of coal and the electrolysis of water; none of which is cheap, easy or simple; in processes that are predominantly endothermic (they use up energy) as opposed to exothermic (they release energy) such as the combustion of petrol. But scientists thought this was good because they had never heard of the SLX — the Samuel Leach Experiment.

This is how it works, in a nutshell. A water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, hence the chemical symbol H2O. These atoms are held together by a non-radioactive bond; a force slightly similar to magnetism.

If a reactant were to be introduced in the correct amounts and the correct environment, that oxygen atom could be made to adopt another preference and bond with this new reactant, leaving the Hydrogen free, and it is this hydrogen that we seek.

It could be done by “changing the polarity” (if we look at the bond as magnetic) of the oxygen such that rather than attract hydrogen, it would repel it.

The exact process would be to superheat water to 300 degF (149 degC) in an enclosed space then introduce it to a reaction chamber containing said reactant. Two simultaneous and interdependent reactions would then occur: at specific temperatures and pressures the reactant would bond with oxygen atoms, liberating the hydrogen atoms in an oxidising exothermic reaction (produces heat).

The liberated hydrogen atoms would then be reunited into hydrogen molecules in a photochemical reaction that would also release heat. The implications of such a reaction working are immense.

Some said Mr Leach’s vision was as viable as a wooden engine, but the jibes came to a quick stop when several patents began rolling in. HJs “lab rat”, the test vehicle, was a Plymouth Horizon TC3.

For an engine to run on hydrogen, modifications have to be made to its combustion chamber design, ignition, timing, combustion surface texture, method of fuel delivery, spark plugs, and combustion-exposed materials (pistons, rings, and valve heads, for example).

Spark plug characteristics relative to cold-start versus warm-engine drivability also must be changed. Sudden burning of fuel and resulting cylinder pressure rises can lead to damaged pistons, rings, walls, gaskets, and bearings. Uncontrolled, these conditions are similar to knocking or pre-ignition in ordinary petrol engines.

The real story is a bit too long to elaborate here, but as people who have fallen off ladders can attest, there is no escaping the laws of physics: in Mr Leach’s case being the laws of thermodynamics.

As I said earlier, more energy is required to create hydrogen than is produced when burning that hydrogen. Also, as I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the basic design of a petrol engine needs some small changes before it can run properly on hydrogen. Mr Leach’s efforts are still being studied, we will give him credit for that, but as far as his claim that he had found a way for a car to run on water… he lied to us.

What makes it odd is that he was already a multimillionaire, so it is unlikely that an empty wallet drove him to the claims. It could have been a matter of pride. Many believed him (I would too), and the amount of investment that followed the patents was staggering. What happened after is a matter of conjecture as further information on him is unavailable.

Agha Waqar Ahmad

At least Mr Leach had the decency to give us an outline of his thinking. This Pakistani individual didn’t. And unlike the other two fellows who lived in times when things uncomprehended could be simply explained away as “magic”, Agha The Engineer lives in an era of Google, The New Scientist Journal and sharing of information (copyright and intellectual property laws will save the budding inventor from plagiarism).

As of July 2012, he is the latest preacher of water as the lifeline of automotive propulsion.

He claims to have a water kit that will allow a car to run purely on water, and achieve an economy figure of 40km per litre of the Great Slaker Of Thirst. Not only does he want the water to power cars, he has a vision where it will power his entire country. And he has the entire country listening.

His idea follows that of Leach very closely: produce hydrogen which will be combusted in the engine; but he prefers electrolysis instead of Leach’s magic reactants. His kit is as simple as a cylindrical jar with water and electrodes in it, essentially an electrolytic cell, which is powered by the car battery.

Having broken water into its constituent elements, the car won’t even need to breathe the same air as us: after all it has its own oxygen supply (hydrogen and oxygen gases would be the results of the electrolysis). This mix can run in an unmodified petrol engine, he says. The kit requires distilled water, he adds.

“I am better than other inventors in achieving high amounts of HH and O because I have ‘undisclosed calculations’”, he boasts. This has ticked off the Western media, who have since branded him a fraud and are laughing at Pakistan’s expense for entertaining a trickster.

The government attention he was seeking, he got. Several ministers have endorsed his work. One minister branded him a national hero (reminds me of George Orwell’s Animal Hero First Class) while another said he had “revolutionalised” science, following a lot of publicity and carefully orchestrated demonstrations.

Not long afterwards, he has been chided for not explaining properly how his kit works without blatantly flouting the second law of thermodynamics: the law of conservation of energy (allegations of 200 per cent efficiency had scientists and maths geeks like me laughing).

A TV appearance in Abu Dhabi did not go well, and his weak defense of not having installed the water kit on the car he was to demonstrate with live on air started losing him some support.

Nuclear physicists in particular have denounced his work as delusional and ignorant, and the fact that so much national pride and the hopes of a government desperately in need of cheap energy and world recognition are pegged on his pipe dream make for a potentially ugly outcome.

Reading the reactions of his fellow Pakistanis in the original press release of his invention makes one cringe, as once again I think about how important it is that one goes to school….

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