By John Ogunlela
My eyes caught this headline weeks ago that a Nigerian had designed a generator that uses water and I didn’t bother to read it because I knew it couldn’t be true. If you are familiar with the scientific world you will know all those class of information cannot be talking about what you think. Later, Channels Television made the horrendous mistake of featuring it without the aid of a science correspondent making critical input. (Abayomi Adisa, the Channels TV reporter that did the feature could not possibly be a science correspondent or he would not have featured that story or he would have scripted it very differently).
After the Channels broadcast, the thing went almost viral and it became an issue. The officials in Anambra State also got too excited and didn’t call in their own crack team but went on to glorify this thing with a prize for invention. The professor of physics interviewed too did not want to bust Channels’ bubble and so spoke tangentially when he should have politely supplied the hard information. When fact is quiet, error has the field to itself and it will flourish. All the people who should help enlighten the public refused to, and the thing became an issue. It is not right – our education is to be used to help show the way once it matters.
Now don’t misunderstand me, the young man that did this work has done well for himself and he deserves to be encouraged. He rose from the rocks and through sheer determination has been able to put something together that is commendable for someone without a formal education in the sciences. However, it is important to point out that this is a misconstruction so that the public will not be misled and we will not look to the world like a community of irritatingly ignorant people.
I will show you how this invention works and explain how ageless the technology is, but before then, let me tell you what it will take to actually use water as fuel to produce electricity. It is a piece of interesting science and it is very old too. And let me remind you, it is something we can put together in about five minutes – all we need is just clean water, some hours of electricity, a large polythene bag that is airtight, and a simple air pump, preferably made of plastic and rubber. It is something any SSII Chemistry student can do if the teacher assists him with safety measures for handling Hydrogen gas.
This is the way all efforts – and I am talking about serious, multimillion-dollar research to fuel generators with water – to generate power from water has been conducted for about 100 years. Here we go: We will put the water in a jar, a 20-litre plastic barrel will do. We will dip electrodes made of any reasonably inert conductors, graphite possibly, in the water, the cathode (the negative electrode) and the anode placed across the diameter of the vessel (the barrel). As current is sent flowing into the water, the water becomes ionized at the poles.
Water is made of two gases: Oxygen and Hydrogen and upon electrolysis, it will be split up into those two gases, Hydrogen being positively ionised will move to the negative electrode or cathode and bubble off from there and will be collected in the polythene bag. Oxygen will come off the anode and could be collected as well. As these gases are produced, you will see the water will start going down in the same proportion. The bags should be empty and completely flattened and as the gas builds up, it will inflate. You can now use the pump to force it into a bottle where it is safer to handle. Hydrogen is a terribly explosive gas (it is the gas that powers the sun, along with its cousin, the two-electron Helium) and the lightest element known – properties that collecting it hard because it will float away above the air so easily. So, you will have to invert the bag. It is something we did in our secondary school lab in the 1980s and it is not special at all.
Now we have a bottle of hydrogen gas. Next is to connect the bottle of hydrogen gas to a generator fitted to fire gas. Some details are needed here for effective firing because the carburettor must be one configured to handle such a very light gas so it can give it the correct mixture with air. Yes, the generator will work just fine. All the processes of splitting the water to generate hydrogen could be incorporated into a single reaction vessel like just a box so that all the observer sees is water being poured into the gen, remember, and that’s how engines are built) .
A generator has two parts, one, the dynamo which generates rotary power to turn the alternator, which actually produces the electricity through an induction mechanism of rotary coils moving in a magnetic field. The alternator does not care what you use to turn its shaft; just turn it. In Kainji, they use the force of falling water, In Egbin, they create a blast of steam using gas to heat a stove that boils the water to generate the steam. You can as well use coal to fire that stove or even wood. As long as the alternator’s shaft is turned consistently at the correct speed, it will pump out electricity.
Now what this young man did was to use an accumulator – a battery to produce power to boil water and send the steam to provide the force that turns the shaft of a small alternator. It is a system that is about 100 years old. Instead of using gas to power his stove, he used a ready source of electricity – a car battery to generate that initial heat to boil the water. He then doubled back some of the current produced to recharge the battery as done in a motor car.
The audit of energy here is the main subject. The power equation is not balanced. The system is merely getting power from a battery and then recycling that power by first using it to boil off water (Electric energy to heat energy) then he convert that heat energy in form of steam to kinetic energy which turns the alternator to induce a current, which is kinetic energy going back to electric energy, which is its original form. If you measure the flow, here is what you will get:
Lets say, 100 units of energy leaves the battery to boil the water, about 70 units will go into doing that job while 30 will be lost though absorption by the boiler’s body (the boiler itself getting hot) . This means the machine has 70% efficiency for this Stage1. The steam produced will spend that 70 units of power to turn the alternator’s shaft and about 60 units will actually do the turning while 10 will be lost to unavoidable inefficiency. The alternator will pump out about just 80% of the power as electricity (the power factor of most alternators, even Leroy Summer is in that range) . In the end, what you have is about 50 units of electrical power. If you go and audit that generator, that is about what you will get, that if the battery that initiates the whole process is pumping out 100, the actual power delivered by the generator will be 50-60 and it is a very firm law of engineering. Any engineer reading this will not even consider it
worthy of any debate. That generator is not using water, it is just playing around with energy for the battery and ending up wasting some of that energy in the process – you cannot generate electricity form an electric source –the battery! Why, because you don’t need to, it doesn’t make sense; you already have electricity. And that is why his battery runs down after every six hours or thereabout and needs to be recharged from an outside source. Someone somewhere ends up picking the bills!
And this is the same problem with our hydrogen fuel generator that we started this essay with. It is also a bad, useless generator – like the ones produced in Stanford or Oxford or anywhere. We are incurring losses by first using electricity to crack water to make our hydrogen. The business can only make sense if the amount of electricity we get by firing our hydrogen gas EXCEEDS the amount of electricity spent on breaking the water apart into oxygen and hydrogen. This challenge has been the crux of the matter for top physicists who have worked on this problem for decades. This is where attempts to create electricity from water comes to grief – there is no positive or ‘profitable’ energy gradient and there are millions of pages of scientific literature available on this subject. It is not something a young man can incidentally put together in his backyard and make headlines. It is not possible – and I use the word ‘not possible’ under full awareness of all the science behind this. It is not possible unless the Periodic Table changes – and it will not.
The history of electricity is a simple Wikipedia matter. The Italian scientist, Volta was the first person to produce a steady flow of electricity with his funny pile of a battery in1800. Edison later commercialized an induction generator on a New York street around 1870s. It is important to note, however, that electricity has always been with us and has been observed as a curiosity since the dawn of history. Run a comb through your hair, hold it to your forehead immediately and you will feel the comb pushing back at you with an invisible hand. All of these things have been observed form ancient times but it was the generation of Michael Faraday, Volta, Edison & Co that were able to hold it down and reduce it to something definitive, controllable, quantifiable, reproducible and useful.
-Ogunlela wrote in from Osun State