Science and Politics should not mix; This Fire From Saltwater idea is wack (and wacky).

Yesterday I did a blog on why politicians should not pretend they understand science and have the public vote based on that. Today on the front page of yahoo was a story that explains the reason. I am surprised that someone at yahoo was not smart enough to check out on this.

“Scientist Burns Water” is a title to an article on the front page of Yahoo. I teach chemistry and am not dumb (at chemistry, anyway). This article shows why science in American schools has failed. I saw the youtube presentation from a local news channel, where they treated it as the new great energy breakthrough. Apparently, it does not take much intelligence to be a journalist. When you are clueless in a field that you are doing a story about, ask someone. Professors at colleges long from the depths of their souls to clear up massive misconceptions such as this. It hurts them when they see gross conceptual errors splayed out as truth, because they know that they will have to repair the damage to their students as they come through their classes. Also, this is based on a principle that any engineering professor (or 2nd year engineering student, for that matter) should know. You can’t violate the laws of thermodynamics.

Here is a summary.

  1. Water Doesn’t burn. What he is doing is taking the the oxygen and hydrogen out of H20 and then burning them.  According to what he says, the radio waves ignite the oxygen and hydrogen on the spot, eliminating chances of saving the energy for future (portable) use.
  2. The amount of energy it takes to pull apart a water molecule (through electrolysis, radio waves, very high temperatures) is exactly the amount of energy released when the hydrogen and oxygen recombine to form water (through burning or a fuel cell). This deals with the conservation of energy.
  3. When we try to pull apart a water molecule, we aren’t 100% efficient – There is always at least a little bit of energy wasted, usually as heat. The fact that some energy always has to be wasted is known as the second law of thermodynamics. (Wikipedia has a more extensive article).
  4. When we put the hydrogen and oxygen back together, we can’t extract all of the energy out of the reaction. This is also because of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. (We lose energy as heat).

After having read these four statements, you know more about energy than the majority of Americans. This is why we can’t use hydrogen as endless fuel. It takes just as much energy to get the hydrogen out of water as we get when we use it, and we have losses all along the way. Fuel cell cars theoretically have fewer losses along the way and that is why many people want to use them, but all technology has losses.  That radio wave generator is sucking more power than the Stirling engine puts out by a long shot. We use the power production methods we use, not because businessmen hate trees and furry animals, but because they work inexpensively and reliably. If you want to be a good environmentalist, don’t try to stop proven power methods, turn off the darn lights. Reuse. Any time you are being an honest decent cheapskate, you are probably saving the environment.

Politicians will grab onto this in an election year, becuase then they can feed the public the idea that with enough research, the laws of thermodynamics will be rendered obsolete.

I want to clearly state, scientists did not make up these laws. If you don’t like them talk to God. If he is willing to change the laws of thermodynamics for you I could use a favor. My class insinuates that I am not cool, and if you have God’s ear, see if you can do something about that.  And while we are wishing, I want a pony.


9 Responses to “Science and Politics should not mix; This Fire From Saltwater idea is wack (and wacky).”

  1. 1 Nate March 24, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Very nice point; the news broadcasts did seem to be presenting it as a possible source for unlimited and totally “free energy.” Where, as you pointed out, simple scientific laws prohibit the ability to get more energy than you put in, and they typically and pretty much always give out less energy than was put in considering that the sterling engine is no where near 100% efficient.

    The problem I see with using the system as an engine, which is what the news wants you to believe, is that any electricity used for the radio waves to generate heat back to electricity would have to pass through an inefficient system to generate less energy than one started with. The entire addition of the radio wave generator and the sea water would not only hinder the amount of electrical current eventually being supplied to the electrical motor, it would add unnecessary weight to the vehicle. Essentially, they are basically saying that the ultimate fuel source is one that you end up with less than you started with, and it requires an intermediate component so that we can hinder the process…

    I must inquire then, what the hell is the point of wasting resources to essentially create a giant resistor so that we can have less than we started with, when we could just forget the intermediate component altogether and just attach the batteries or electrical source directly into the electric engine??? The general population is dumb -enough said.

  2. 2 durch March 24, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I bet this scientist was a little embarrassed when he saw the story. I am sure he knew that it was just kind of fun, and did not have energy generating capabilities. The ignorance of people to the basic laws of physics is astounding.

    I second what you said, nate. I used to think average people were smart, then I met them.

  3. 3 Dino July 31, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Nate said quote “Where, as you pointed out, simple scientific laws prohibit the ability to get more energy than you put in.” end quote.
    Are you saying then to release that massive amount of energy in
    a nuclear explosion you must first put it in. Think about it.

  4. 4 durch July 31, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Dino, that is a very good point, but as you look deeper, that energy was put in in the first place by something else. Just as fossil fuels were accumulated by processes in the earth, fissile nuclear fuel has been accumulated by processes in the universe.

    The super heavy elements that are used in nuclear bombs were created by the explosion of super massive stars. The conditions in their cores during supernovas give massive energy inputs to created things such as uranium, plutonium, etc. Some uranium isotopes have a very long half life and so we still have some on this planet that were flung here by the explosions of supernovas, whereas pretty much everything heavier than Uranium decayed away based on .

    Once all matter gets to more nuclearly stable forms (around 56 protons + neutrons per nucleus), we won’t be able to use it as a form of fuel. It is shown on this graph in wikipedia.

    I recognize that Hydrogen was not created by supernovas, but once the hydrogen is used up, it is gone (in billions of years). I would say trillions, but I am not sure how long it will take until essentially all is gone.

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