Thursday, June 23, 2016

Taking a Wrong Turn on the Hydrogen Highway

By Bob Ferris

Nearly a decade ago I wrote a series of pieces and comments about hydrogen devices in automobiles often called HHO generators. Some of this was prompted by Ronn Maxwell coming up with his so-called "God's Own Supercar" and other comments were the result of devices such as the Hydro-4000 sold by David Havanich Jr. via the Diversified Energy Group.

Maxwell's car never went into production and the company burned through the investor's money and changed names and management (1,2,3). The Diversified Energy folks had their own problems with the SEC on this and other matters.  I thought this was all put to bed but then the above video came into my facebook feed plus I noticed that Rev. Ronn Maxwell was trying to revive Ronn Motors Group with a new car.  So maybe everyone needs a booster shot of facts and history.

See here for details.
Below is a piece I wrote for the Hydro-4000 in 2008.  And while it contains comments specific to that device, the logic and physics apply to this whole class options.  Others were voicing these same concerns (1,2)

When I was a young child I was very entrepreneurial. At about age 6 I hit upon a scheme whereby I would take grass clippings grind them up with water and sell the resulting green solution as "grass juice." And I had even tested my product by pouring it on a portion of lawn and watched it grow greener than the surrounding area. This was long before I knew anything about chlorophyll and photosynthesis or experimental design. I suspect my pride in my product would have prevented me from understanding that simply providing water to our parched lawn was doing the trick. My career was cut short by a severe cut to the hand and while these sorts of ill-informed, well-meaning activities are cute when one is a child, they take on a much more sinister mien when practiced by adults for profits.

So why would I post this in an environmental forum? Because the hucksters have painted themselves green and are out there cruising for the intellectually weak among the environmental and sustainability movements. What's more, their marketing is also targeted towards those in our population who can least afford to waste money on contraptions with overstated benefits making this also an environmental justice issue. The direct relevance here is that they--in their multitude of forms--are starting to join and post on this site.

So who are they? They are the folks who are trying to sell ozone air cleaners (which will soon be banned in California), water purifiers that are basically hopped-up dehumidifiers, and, more recently, folks who are trying to sell $1200 electrolysis units for your car so that you can harvest the "excess" energy produced by your car's alternator. In the latter case these folks are selling products such the Hydro-4000 that purports to cut your fuel costs by 20-60%. (Wow, I want one!). But is this possible? Turns out it is not.

Let's do some math. I always find it a little easier when analyzing these items to take a hypothetical example and then standardize the units for ease of analysis. In this case let's use a fairly efficient car that gets 30 miles to the gallon and convert everything to British Thermal Units (BTUs). For the purpose of this analysis let say we drive our car 60 miles in an hour. That means we burn two gallons of gasoline at 125,000 BTUs per gallon giving us a total of 250,000. Seems straight-forward enough.

Then let's go to the electrolysis side of this equation. Electrolysis is a method that can be used for many purposes including the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. This is basically done with electrical current and the car's alternator is certainly capable of doing that. These gases are then injected into and combusted in the motor's cylinder to make the car move. My research shows that this operation is about 40-60% efficient in translating electrical energy into accessible hydrogen energy, but the Hydro-4000 folks claim their device operates in the 80-94% range. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. So what it basically comes down to is how much juice can the alternator produce.

Most car alternators produce about 14.5 volts and are rated at 50 or so amps. You take these two numbers and multiply them to get the wattage produced which is 725 watts. When you run that for an hour you'll get 3.41 BTUs for every watt or a total 2472.25 BTUs. Eighty percent of that is 1978.8 BTUs which should be the maximum hydrogen energy amassed during that hour of driving and hydrolysis of the distilled water. But this number is likely high because the alternator is doing other work too such as powering the ignition, running any fans, making your radio work, and lighting the road at night.

Going back to the total energy used for this hour foray in our fairly efficient car we see that 20% of 250,000 BTUs is 50,000 BTUs. That means that somewhere in this interaction we find ourselves 48021.2 BTUs short on the low estimate of what the Hydro-4000 folk's claim in terms of savings--using their efficiency figures and not discounting for any other demands on the alternator output. Hmm.

In other parts of their literature they also say that they use about two cups of distilled water for every 300 miles traveled. Great, very efficient and something else that we can measure and convert. Since one cup is 8 ounces and two are 16 or basically one pound we can also look at the BTUs easily. One pound of hydrogen contains 61084 BTUs, but water is four fifths oxygen so these two cups contain about 12216.8 BTUs. Since this trip is five times as long as our original trip we are looking at 1,250,000 BTUs total or 250,000 BTUs for a 20% savings. Here again, I am not sure where the missing 237,783.2 BTUs come from to meet the Hydro-4000 claims.

Before someone shouts enough with the math already, I will make three points:

1) The fact that these types of devices exist and their purveyors prosper means that we need a better educated populace that will be able to do these simple types of analyses for themselves. Education is key to our surviving our current crises.

2) Somewhere, through some agency or entity, we have to do a better job of vetting these devices and warning the public to be wary of these sorts of claims and those who make them.

3) We all have to speak up and help those who are most vulnerable to these predatory marketing practices.

Let's put our efforts and our monies towards legitimate endeavors. There are plenty out there to choose from.

P.S. To those who sell these devices who want to nit-pick details in terms of whether or not I used a 50 amp or 95 amp alternators please, do not bother. These 20-60% claims were not just a little off they were orders of magnitude off the mark.

The tragedy here is that hydrogen does have a place in the new energy economy as a storage medium which needs to be explored.  It is a shame that these folks dilute that promise by confusing the issue with false claims and obvious scams.