In the last year, a story has whirled around the internet about a scientist who has managed to "burn water". Supposedly he has tapped in to a previously unavailable source of almost limitless energy. Imagine the possibilities! All we have to do is make small household water burning devices put one in every home. Water is everywhere - it even falls out of the sky in most places! Clean, free energy for everyone! Yippie!
But on closer examination, it turns out that this "discovery" is not all it's cracked up to be. In fact, it's far from being a solution to our energy needs. The fact that so many people are willing to believe in this "invention" is an embarrassing example of the deficiencies in science education.
Let's take a look at the claims and then demonstrate why they are totally false.
John Kanzius is the scientist who "invented" this procedure. He was looking for a way to take the salt out of water cheaply and easily. He tried using high energy radio-frequency waves to break up the water. His experiment was a success in that it did break apart the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from the water. Unfortunately, in the process, he was forced to put more energy IN to the system, via the radio-frequency generator, than he got out from the breaking up of the water.
Think of it like paying an extra $10 to get a $5 rebate. Who would do that?
For the record, the water in this experiment isn't really burning. When the radio-frequency energy hits the water, it breaks up the water in to it's basic components, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is actually highly combustible when it's being bombarded with high energy waves. It's the hydrogen that appears to be burning, not the pure water. But I digress...
Let's now look at the Laws of Thermodynamics and how they apply to this case.
The Laws of Thermodynamics were first touched upon by a scientist named Sadi Carnot in the early 19th Century. Within a generation, the Laws were formalized in to a set of five rules which are used to govern the basic processes of work, heat and thermodynamic systems. This scientific foundation is the basis of much of the technology of produced in the 19th Century which led to the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines, gas turbine engines, and even refrigerators owe their existence to the Laws of Thermodynamics.
A discussion of the details of the Laws would be lengthy and is not totally necessary to this discussion. However, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Laws, being the most important to this discussion, have been popularly summarized in the following manner. The actual Laws are complex mathematical proofs.
The First Law: You cannot win. You can not get something for nothing. Matter and energy are always totally conserved in a chemical reaction. Nuclear physics would later show that matter and energy are actually two forms of the same thing, but that's getting off topic a bit.
The Second Law: You cannot break even. No reaction or process is 100% efficient. You always increase the randomness and disorder of a system over time.
The Third Law: You cannot get out of the game. There is no way to escape the Laws, even if you don't think they are "fair. Too bad, you'll have to just get over it.
So what does all this have to do with "burning" salt water?
Sure, John Kanzius has succeeding in making a chemical reaction that involves salt water. It splits the water and releases energy in the process. However, there is no mention of how much energy has been put in to the system to get the reaction started. The radio frequency energy sources that are needed to initiate this reaction are notorious for using tremendous amounts of energy.
It is almost certain, according to the Laws of Thermodynamics, that he is putting more energy in to the system to get the reaction to start, than he is getting out at the end. His refusal to release statistics on energy input make his claims even more dubious. If he really was getting more energy out of the reaction than he put in, why would he not release his data to show that? And why wouldn't he provide details of how his experiment works? He'd almost be assured a Nobel Prize and be hailed as a worldwide savior for providing a clean, cheap source of energy. What is he afraid of? Could it be the Big Bad Laws of Thermodynamics?
I suspect so.