A Techno blog at New Scientist Magazine recently covered a story that I had only just glimpsed in news releases.
(Photo: John Kanzius)
Apparently, a U.S. inventor, John Kanzius (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kanzius), has discovered that sea water will burn with a flame when it is irradiated with radio frequency waves around 13.5 Mhz, which is in the neighborhood of ship-to-shore radio.
See a YouTube demonstration at
The water heats up and escaping gases can be ignited into a brightly burning yellow flame. The phenomenon has been replicated. It looks like Kanzius has discovered a new method of electrolysis, the breaking apart of the hydrogen-oxygen bonds in water to release hydrogen and oxygen as gases. In the more traditional method, an electrical current is passed through the water between two metal electrodes, to do that job.
The news media have focused on the potential of burning seawater as a fuel to replace oil. That will probably not happen. We have so much water on earth because water is extremely stable stuff. It takes a lot of energy to break it up, much more energy than the value of any free hydrogen you could ever get as a result.
Furthermore, traditional electrolysis is a lot cheaper and lower energy way to break up water than by using radio frequencies, so there is no obvious benefit to Kanzius’ method of electrolysis.
Still, some interesting questions arise from this finding.
Normally, an atom of oxygen has two stray electrons banging around loose in its outer shell. But an atom of hydrogen happens to be short one electron in its outer (and only) shell. So one oxygen makes two hydrogens very happy by taking care of their electron shortage while putting its two extra electrons to work. That bond between two hydrogens and one oxygen (H2O), works out extremely well for all concerned.
Traditional electrolysis works by providing such an overabundance of free electrons at the cathode (negative end), that the hydrogens do not need to share with oxygen any more. They can get electrons on their own, allowing them to form molecular hydrogen gas (H2), which boils off and can be burned, as Kanzius demonstrated. At the positive electrode, oxygen atoms give up their spare electrons and combine to form molecular oxygen gas (O2).
But why would a radio signal cause the hydrogen-oxygen bonds to break? No new electrons are added to that system. One imagines that the radio frequency used just happens to be one that resonates with the H2O covalent bonds, causing the water molecule to essentially shake itself apart. The fact that the water heats up to 3000 degrees Celsius suggests something like that is going on.
Still, if the radio frequency is really about 13.5 Mhz, not even as much as an AM radio signal, it would seem that the wavelength would be far too large to affect the covalent bonds. I don’t know enough physics to know for sure, but it seems like there is something going on here that is not obvious. What would other radio frequencies do in this situation, for example at exactly half the wavelength?
Next, why is the flame yellow? Hydrogen burns with a colorless (white) flame. Since the demonstration is done with sea water, which has a lot of sodium chloride (salt), we should probably assume that the yellow in the flame comes from oxidizing sodium, which does burn yellow.
I’m not sure how that would work, though. What, exactly is burning? Sodium hydroxide? Some weird hydrogenated plasma of sodium? Again, I lack the basic chemistry and physics to know, but it seems like something unusual is going on there.
Would the demonstration work at all with pure distilled water? If it is merely electrolysis, it should work fine. Yet all the articles I’ve seen on the topic describe only a salt water demonstration. Sea water, to be precise. Why? Would the demonstration work on isotonic saline, or does it have to be sea water? Again, something more than meets the eye is involved here.
Oddly, Kanzius describes the effect not as electrolysis, but as “reunification,” a kind of reverse electrolysis in which atomic hydrogen and oxygen come together to form water. That doesn’t make any sense, since that would consume the flammable gases to create water, which does not burn. Kanzius is not a credentialed scientist, but he clearly knows a thing or two, so I wonder why he would choose such an odd description for his phenomenon. He isn’t saying anything more about it while he applies for patents. This makes me wonder if he knows or suspects something more than electrolysis is involved.
Finally, even though breaking up the hydrogen-oxygen bonds will always use more energy than it releases, that isn’t necessarily a showstopper. Fuel cells and the much ballyhooed “hydrogen car” of the future consume more energy than they produce, but there are other factors to consider besides just thermodynamics.
Sourcing a fuel has costs. Is it cheaper or easier to generate a radio signal than to drill an oil well? Maybe. Distribution and portability of the fuel cost something, and maybe those costs can be lowered. Exhaust gases from combustion can be extremely costly, as we know with petroleum fuel, and those costs are greatly lowered with hydrogen as a fuel. There are also severe political costs and risks associated with fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are much less abundant than seawater. All these non-thermodynamic considerations need to be worked into any feasibility analysis.
So it is not out of the question that hydrogen produced by radio frequency radiation of sea water could be a viable fuel.