Energy from water!

Editor Neil McNaughton engages in another tilt at an improbable solution to the world’s energy problems—noting en passant that the world wide web is a great echo chamber for nonsense. In a spirit of devilry, he tries a bit of trolling himself—with mixed results.

I argued a while back that you need to take what you find on the web with a pinch of salt. Those who know stuff may not want to share and if they do, their voices will likely be drowned out by the unwashed hoard of Twitts. My last tilt (Oil ITJ March 2008) was against the absurdity of extracting any useful contribution to heating your home from sub-zero outside air—a.k.a. air geothermal energy.

It behooves me to take up the pen again to counter another ridiculous claim—that you can extract energy from water by splitting it into its component hydrogen and oxygen and burning these in a hydrogen powered engine.

The claim was made in a recent press release from Coates International* in which Coates claims to have solved the world’s energy problems with a water to hydrogen convertor. I summarize a brief email exchange I had with Coates’ Paul Casagrande.

NMcN—On your website you claim that your hydrogen reactor uses water as its only source of fuel. How can this be true? It takes energy to split H2O. So the energy available from the split H2 and O2 will necessarily be less than the input. Someone is trying to kid someone.

Casagrande—Thank you for E-mail response. We are not allowed divulge technical information to outsiders as you will understand, we have many patents pending on our hydrogen project. However you may go to our web site and view an engine operating on water split into hydrogen on demand.

NMcN—I am not contesting the feasibility of a hydrogen engine. I am saying that getting net energy from water is not possible and that the statement I quote from your website is scientifically untrue.

Let me put it simply—you can use electricity to convert water to its constituent hydrogen and oxygen. This will cost you some energy. You can then combine the hydrogen and oxygen to make heat and drive a generator which will use up some more energy.

So the electricity coming out of any such system will be a fraction (i.e. less than 1) of the energy used to power it. Your claims to the contrary (i.e. that you produce more energy than goes in) are clearly fictitious.

Casagrande—There is more energy and explosive power in one gallon of water than there is in ten gallons of gasoline. We are not about to educate you about our technology. Sorry.

NMcN—To see just how wrong (or poorly advised) you are ask yourself this question. What happens if you feed your hydrogen generator with the H2 and O2 from the split water? What comes out the exhaust? The answer is of course, water (that is why it is so clean). So you have ‘invented’ an engine that produces its own fuel, i.e. a perpetual motion machine! The US Patent office turns down hundreds of such applications every year as it will yours**.

Casagrande—I forgot to mention the exhaust is collected through a condenser that delivers it back to the reactor for re use continuously. Whereas gasoline is used once, costs $4 per gallon and pollutes the environment. Neil, get a real job.

Since this exchange, I still don’t have a real job and Coats is still plugging its technology. Its latest release includes a quote from president and CEO George Coates who claims, ‘We have engines operating on water split into hydrogen by a Coates water to hydrogen reactor. [...] I feel extremely confident that we have all the components and science for success. I am convinced that this technology could make the USA independent of foreign imported oil, create many new jobs and boost the economy. [...] The most abundant power on this planet is contained in water.’

Just as for the ‘air geothermal’ baloney you won’t get any decent information on Coates’ wild claims on the web. The company releases are dutifully picked up by Yahoo, Business Week and even the Wall Street Journal. Some have mealy-mouthed disclaimers along the lines of ‘our editorial department was not involved in the creation of this content.’ Which just about sums up the state of online publishing today!

I thought that I would add to the confusion with a trolling*** experiment. When I say ‘experiment,’ I mean what psychologists and social scientists call a ‘single case study’ i.e. an anecdote. My target was the Statoil-backed LinkedIn Energy Innovation forum, something which I visit occasionally before beating a hasty retreat from the wild claims, misconceptions and dialogs of the deaf. I innocently posted a pointer to the Coates website asking forum members what they thought of water as an energy source.

The first reply was a disappointing, ‘Water has no energy content. Why are you wasting our time with this nonsense?’ I was hoping for something more cranky. This eventually came in some rather hard to follow discourse on the energy potential of water, ‘If we become independent of fossil energy must be method to 100% water’ (sic) and intriguing speculation on the ‘power of buoyancy in the water.’ Another contributor congratulated me on my ‘awesome technology.’ Ouch.

Sometimes I wonder what Statoil’s PR department thinks of the monster they have unleashed. The chances of making any sense from such ‘crowdsourced’ information is pretty near zero. But no doubt it is all duly spidered and indexed by the search engines. After all, they are not after the ‘truth,’ just trying to get ‘right up to the creepy line****.’

* Coates International is not to be confused with the venerable Coates Engineering of Sensor simulation renown.

** Disclosure—I made this up. USPTO more likely passes hundreds of perpetual motion claims per year.

*** ‘A troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people.’ Wikipedia.

**** Eric Schmidt, Google CEO.


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