Can cars drive on water? The science of a TikTok conspiracy theory, explained

ICT Tac is a powerful tool for amplifying conspiracy theories and hoaxes. Take the legend of the water car, which is both.

A recent video with millions of views shows a man pouring bottled water into the shiny green underbelly of a contraption in the trunk of his car. The accompanying text reads: ‘Everyone complains about gas prices and the mine runs on water.’ The responses to this video, as well as other posts from the app, issue obscure warnings, implying that various people who worked on the water car were murdered or disappeared by the FBI or another boogeyman from The shadow.

To be clear: The water-powered miracle car is imaginary, a long-running hoax that seemingly pops up every time gas prices rise, leaving drivers dreaming of another way to power their cars. As for the conspiracy theories: while it’s true that the oil barons would be happy to see the world remain dependent on fossil fuels, they don’t need to abolish the water car to do so, because that’s not not real.

That said, water is a significant portion of other more realistic technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cell cars that are already on the road, notes Timothy Lipman, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In this way, the H20 will indeed be part of our automotive future, even if, as Lipman notes, “you’re never going to pour water in your car.”

Can a car run on water according to science?

First, basic science. Your everyday internal combustion engine burns gasoline to extract the large amount of energy contained in its chemical bonds, creating harmful byproducts such as carbon dioxide.

Water, on the other hand, does not burn, so it cannot simply be poured into an engine as if it were gasoline. Instead, most claims that water can be used as an automotive fuel are based on the idea of ​​using a chemical process called electrolysis, in which electricity is applied to water to separate H2O into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is energy-rich and highly flammable. When you burn it to release this energy, the hydrogen combines with the oxygen in the air to create, you guessed it, water.

All of these steps can be done. Using electrolysis to break down water molecules is basic high school chemistry, while fuel cells that create energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water by as a by-product are established and well-understood technology.

You can find two mainstream hydrogen fuel cell cars on the roads today: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo. Most proposals for water cars simply combine the two stages in a single vehicle, equipping the car with an electrolyzer and a fuel cell to create a loop: the hydrogen created by the electrolysis of water powers the fuel cell, which creates water as a by-product that can be fed back into the electrolyser.

The Toyota Mirai, a fuel cell car. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images

It sounds simple. The problem is that during both stages you waste a lot of energy wasting heat and other inefficiencies. This is the boring truth of thermodynamics and why it will never be possible to create perpetual motion machines producing free energy.

Lipman estimates that today’s best electrolysers are about 75% efficient at splitting water to create hydrogen (meaning about a quarter of the energy is lost). Once you have the hydrogen, he says, a car’s fuel cell is about 60% efficient at turning it into usable energy, which means an additional 40% of the energy is wasted.

In other words, it is theoretically possible to build a water car via these two steps, but such a contraption would waste so much energy that it would be quite impractical.

The water cars that have captured so many imaginations over the years tend not to be so boringly realistic about their limits. Instead, they often rely on ill-defined or secret technology that allows the inventor to circumvent the laws of physics and allows the car to travel great distances on relatively small amounts of water.

In 2007, for example, a man claimed that subjecting salt water to a radiofrequency field would cause him to burn. A few years earlier, a company called Genesis World Energy raised millions of dollars in investment for its project to defy the laws of thermodynamics – at least until its founder was imprisoned for fraud.

The most famous of a long line of water car claims came from an Ohio man named Stanley Meyer. From the 1970s, Meyer claimed to have built a water dune buggy. His design was said to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and used a typical internal combustion engine to burn the hydrogen and replenish the water vapor.

The details were hazy, and while Meyer’s car worked in theory, in the real world it would have violated the laws of physics. Shortly before his death, an Ohio court ruled against him in a fraud case brought by some of his investors.

A German fuel cell production center. Construction Photography/Avalon/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Why do people believe in water cars?

The water car myth is seductive in part because it contains elements of truth. There are, for example, a wide variety of attempts to make ordinary internal combustion engines more efficient or more durable by using water or hydrogen as a kind of additive.

Water is used as part of the process of creating hydrogen for hydrogen cars, Lipman says. About 98% of the hydrogen used by American industries is created by an established industrial process called steam methane reforming, or SMR, which treats methane (one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms) with hydrogen. water in the form of vapor. The process creates free hydrogen with carbon dioxide as a waste product.

Could pure water separation ever compete with SMR? Lipman says it’s possible in theory – as long as you don’t start imagining the whole process happening inside a passenger car. Instead, imagine a vast solar farm in sunny California creating cheap solar energy which it uses to power next-generation electrolyzers of the future, which split water into H and O more efficiently than we do. we can’t today. This hydrogen could be shipped by pipeline to service stations where, one day, it could be competitive with gasoline, especially as the price at the pump increases.

Under such an arrangement, he says, we would be one step away from the dream of the water car. But having all that setup inside your car, so you can fill the tank with Dasani and go? Forget.

“That somehow you’re going to pour water into your gas tank and produce hydrogen on board the car with a built-in electrolyser, then store the hydrogen and convert it back to electricity ? That’s not really enough,” he says.

The not-so-mysterious death of Stanley Meyer

On March 20, 1998, Stanley Meyer died while dining at a restaurant. A brain aneurysm killed him, according to the coroner’s official report. Stanley’s brother, Stephen, tells a less mundane story. According to him, Stanley Meyer took a sip of his cranberry juice, fell violently ill, and uttered with his dying statement, “They poisoned me.”

An investigation turned up no such evidence, but a conspiracy theory was born. Rumors swirled online that Meyer was murdered to suppress his miracle technology, turning the man who just wanted to save people from the high gas prices driven by 1970s oil embargoes and shortages into a martyr. for true water car believers – and inspiration for TikTok users who whisper you better be careful if you start working on a water car.

Perhaps such paranoia should come as no surprise, given that transportation has seen its share of bad faith schemes and nefarious schemes that were much more fact-based, from the General Motors streetcar conspiracy to conspiracies covered in Who killed the electric car?

None of this makes the water car any less whimsical. But Meyer’s dream of abandoning internal combustion is even more imperative today.

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