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Running Cars on Water?

People who expect something for nothing will fall for even the most wild-eyed promises and conspiracy theories.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

November 17, 2009 - 12:05 am

Someone recently forwarded me a “technical report” that claims that it is possible to run automobiles on water — with this miraculous build-it-yourself gadget that converts water into hydrogen and oxygen, then converts it to fuel that you use in addition to gasoline. (It was being distributed by email to break the conspiracy that keeps us all from using water to run our cars!)

As much as I would love to believe that such a thing is possible, I know better. Of course, that’s because I’ve seen this sort of idiocy before. Back in the 1970s, when I was young, the equivalent claim was that there were 200-mile-per-gallon carburetors that had been suppressed by the automobile companies, at the insistence of the oil companies.

The first part of the claim was absurd. A number of studies over the years concluded that no more than 40% of the chemical energy contained in gasoline was being converted by the internal combustion engine into motion. Why only 40%? Because any chemical process is inefficient — and especially a chemical process as clumsy as exploding gasoline vapor. Once you have converted that chemical energy into rotation, you lose some of it because of friction in the driveline, wind resistance against the body of the car, and flexing of the tires. There was room for improvement — but there was simply no way that a 4,000-pound automobile (as was typical in the 1970s) was going to get 200 miles per gallon. Even a 100% efficient system (which is not possible) wasn’t going to do much better than 30 miles per gallon with such a large vehicle.

The second part of the claim was even more absurd. If you ran a car company and you had the option of selling a car that consumed vastly less gasoline than its competitors, why would you not sell it and gobble up the market? Volkswagen, back then, sold a car that was a bit better on gas mileage than many of the American barges of the period, and it sold rather nicely because of it. Imagine if you could have bought a 1973 Impala sedan that gave you 200 miles per gallon? How, exactly, would the oil companies have prevented GM from selling it?

There was room for improvement in 1970s automobiles — but not because of any “suppressed carburetor.” Fuel injection and computer control of engines improved efficiency by a few percent. Radial tires, because of less rolling resistance, helped by a few percent. So did improved aerodynamics. Lock-up torque converters on automatic transmissions, again, provided a few-percentage-point improvement. Front-wheel drive, by reducing energy losses to the rear wheels, helped. Increasing the number of gears in transmissions, so that you could always operate the engine in its most efficient RPM range, ditto. Reducing overall vehicle weight probably helped more than all these others combined; the average American sedan weighs much less today than it did in 1973. Each of these improvements in automobiles was individually tiny and often achieved with an enormous investment of capital. None of them was something that you could put together in your garage.

There are areas where individuals can tune automobiles to make them more efficient. Automobile makers are required to guarantee to the federal government that their entire fleet will meet federal emissions standards for many years. As a result, they must tune automobiles to make sure that only a tiny percentage will go off the ragged edge. Individual shops can, and sometimes do, reprogram the engine control computers to get a bit more gas mileage or horsepower — while still meeting emissions standards. But then again, they can verify that doing so hasn’t taken this particular car outside the emissions limits. Still, these are minor improvements; not 200 miles per gallon.

When I see these bizarre claims of suppressed systems that you can build yourself to run your car on water, I just shake my head in amazement that anyone would seriously think this possible. There are definitely some areas where clever engineers can come up with major improvements. Bruce Crower, for example, is developing something called the six-stroke engine — which injects water into a gasoline engine cylinder after the gasoline vapor has driven the piston. It uses the waste heat of the cylinder to produce steam, which drives the piston one more time. It’s a clever idea and might actually turn into something serious one of these days, because it both uses less gasoline and substantially reduces the need for an engine cooling system. But no one is suppressing it and it isn’t something that you can just throw together in your garage.

Conspiracy theories are very popular, in politics, in religion, and even in automotive technology. At the core of the “run your car on water” conspiracy theory is the belief that you can get something for almost nothing. Think of it as socialism for automobile engines!

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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