Water-powered car scammers through history

If you missed Jason Torchinsky's Jalopnik story about water-powered car hucksters of past and present, here's your chance to read it.
The idea itself— to build a car that runs on ordinary water— is total crap, scientifically. It violates at least one law of physics, and pisses off a few others. But the idea behind the idea— a car that runs on something so plentiful and cheap it’s almost valueless— will never go away. It’s just too tantalizing to give up.


  1. Bloke – “ere mate you the guy with the water powered car I read ’bout?”

    Huckster – “That’s me chum, cash only though and I’ll save you the tax!”

    Bloke – “Not so fast, I heard that no car can run on water, that it’s a scam, you put water in the car but it’s rigged up, see?”

    Huckster – “Nah, yah got me all wrong, I ain’t one o them guys, not me. I’m legit, too legit to quit you might say, I stand behind my car, see?”

    Bloke – “Wolright then,  you can prove it then?”

    Huckster – “You bet buddy, first things first, you don’t put water in the car, see, it don’t work like that, that is a scam just like you heard, you heard right.”

    Bloke – “So, then it don’t run on water, but says in your add all you need is water!? It don’t make no sense.”

    Huckster – “Sure it does friend, the water ain’t for the car, it’s for you. You drink the water, see?”

    Bloke – “So I drink the water then what? How’s the car go?, what does it take in then?”

    Huckster – “Simple friend, simple, you drink the water, it takes the piss.”

  2. Not a bad article, but could have mentioned the The Lone Gunmen episode “Like Water for Octane”, in which Yves gives the Cliff Notes version of why a water-powered car would be a disaster: making the the fuel free or nearly free would vastly increase the number and size of vehicles on the roads, leading to ecological disaster.

    1. Damn HJ…I was going post something like this. Great episode. Too bad the series was yanked. Nice to see that someone other than me thought of this ;)

      However, while it’s an interesting hypothesis that the free fuel would ruin the environment, I believe the opposite true as free or cheap, minimally polluting energy would open up possibilities for fixing and preserving the environment that would otherwise be unimaginable, including making possible, and attractive the notion of depopulating the planet in favour of orbital, lunar and other offworld colonies – you know, leaving before we cause our species to become a failed experiment.

      Of course, I also thought that perhaps the episode was, in a subtle way, illustrating how short-sighted and closed-minded certain radical (like most radicals) environmentalists and other ideologues can be.

      1. Saudi Arabia?  Most American supermarkets have at least a few varieties of water that cost more than a gallon of gas. My favorite are the ones (like Aquafina) that are just bottled tap water.

      2. At least Saudi Arabia actually needs those plants.  We pay for bottled water even though we have clean tap water (which we pay for already).

  3. You can run a car on electricity, which is virtually free in the form of solar power. Or you can use electricity to extract hydrogen from water and run a car via a fuel cell, or even internal combustion if you insist. The only reason that these solutions are not readily available today is because we would rather use our tax dollars to bomb brown people rather than invest in the research that would make the technology viable.

    1. Or the counter fact that electric isn’t at a price to distance point that is feasible for most people, and we don’t have a hydrogen infrastructure in place.  (Obviously we could fix the hydrogen problem, but riding around with lots of compressed flammable gas would make me feel a bit iffy.)

      1. Most cities have a ton of vehicles running on natural gas, so I don’t think we need to worry about that aspect. And, as you point out, a hydrogen generation and delivery infrastructure could be built, and for a lot less money than a war. So could an electric recharging infrastructure, which gets rid of the current battery limitations.

        1.  I thought the problem with hydrogen was due to it’s small molecular size, it was very hard to store and transport it due to leakage?

          1. It worked for the Hindenberg. But seriously, it’s a small issue compared to  the putting a man on the moon. I don’t think there is anything we couldn’t figure out in five years with a budget the size of the Manhattan Project.

          2. I agree with you in principle.

            But I wonder if the reason the Manhattan Project succeeded is because of the obvious threat posed by Axis victory.

            Also, perhaps at the time of the Manhattan Project, there was a not quite as developed (compared to now) parasitic Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex which is presently complicated by more extensive globalization than what existed in the 1940’s. 

            I don’t know MG – If I believed in miracles not caused by our interpretation of random events, I would think maybe the Manhattan Project was a miracle. It is obvious that it was well planned and organized. The memoirs of various participants make a good read.

        2. A ton of vehicles would be like…  one of them?  Until recently I lived in Philly, and I saw one NG truck, owned by the gas company.  Actually saw it a few times, so they may have 2 or 3 of them.  Now I live in a smaller city, and I’ve seen none at all.

          But I’m pretty sure the oil companies will not ever permit government to build alternative fuel infrastructure.  It will happen when oil becomes prohibitively expensive, which will probably be within 10 years, and then it will be the same oil companies building it.  With Federal subsidies.

          1. You’ve never seen a mail truck?  They almost all run on CNG.  The buses in Boston run on CNG; IIRC so do the ones in Austin.

        1. Considering it’s a liquid and will simply pour out if the tank is punctured, yes I am more fine with it than a highly compressed gas.

        2. Didn’t Howard Hughes kill a design for a steam powered car because he was freaked about about possible scald injuries?  Seems a bit odd.

  4. There’s nothing impossible about running a car off of water; you use the hydrogen contained for nuclear fusion  Not practical at the moment, but theoretically possible.

    1. Water is the ashes of a hydrogen fire. It’s like saying you can take car exhaust an just convert it into gasoline. It’s possible, but hardly an energy source.

      1. My science degree from Comic Book University tells me we just need to open some kind of portal and find a source of Reverse-Energy so we can have a mobius loop of creation-destruction*

        *Source may or may not be only applicable to one mad scientist and his/her underlings,

      2. I think you’re thinking of fuel cells, which will never generate more energy then you put in. Nuclear fusion could provide enough power to both split the water and power the vehicle.

    1. Steam engines don’t run on water, they need a combustible energy source to produce steam from water.

  5. The idea itself— to build a car that runs on ordinary water— is total crap, scientifically. It violates at least one law of physics, and pisses off a few others

    Actually, it doesn’t violate any laws of physics. Dreadfully inefficient compared to other technologies, yes. Not remotely practical, sure. There’s no law of physics that says you can’t run a car on a ridiculously inefficient energy source. It’s absurd to do so, but we make machines all the time that are explicitly made to be insanely inefficient – see Rube Goldberg devices, or the Most Useless Device.

    It’s far more efficient to run the car off of electricity than it is to use that electricity to split the water, and drive on the hydrogen, but if you REALLY wanted to, you could do it.

    1. Actually, it does violate the laws of physics.  Specifically: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. 

      The understood definition of “car that runs on water” means you’ve replaced your fuel (at least partially) with water. 

      The problem with this is: water doesn’t burn, at least, it doesn’t burn when exposed to the atmosphere.  Most of these systems install an electrolysis device which pipes the hydrogen generated into the intake.

      This is where the violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics happens: the end state of burning hydrogen is water.  The process of burning hydrogen and producing water is not 100% efficient (car engines are 15-20% efficient), so you lose 80% of the energy on the burn step.  Worse, the electrolysis process is not 100% efficient, so it takes more energy to split the water and produce hydrogen, and then you cannot get all of it back.

      Claiming you have a device that allows a car to run (even partially) on hydrogen-from-water means you are claiming you have a device that violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  If you claim to be using HHO, you are completely full of shit, because HHO is as real as fairy urine.  This also ignores table-top fusion, because that doesn’t exist either (and the person who gets that working is going to be rich).

      Generally, when someone produces a device that seemingly gets some MPG gain out of this, it’s usually due to confusing the  engine computer and nothing else.  Why?  Because our cars run with a fuel mixture that’s most efficient for the catalytic converter, not for mileage.  You’d do better just remapping/reprogramming the engine computer (but doing so is illegal (in the USA, where I know anything about the laws), as you would be circumventing part of the pollution control system; the emissions laws in the US aren’t open source friendly).

      1. As you said gas car doesn’t even come close to Carnot efficiency of 50%, it’s way down at 20% to 25% efficiency the rest of the energy of the gas you buy is turned to heat in the motor block or blown out the exhaust. Heat that has to be piped away.

        There is a way to use water to radically improve this. Water doesn’t burn but it does change volume explosively when turned to vapor. If you are crazy you can add a steam cycle to a gas engine. Instead of suck-squish-burn-blow happening in the motor you would have suck-squish-burn-blow-spritz-steam. This is incredibly powerful and way over Carnot efficiency. It turns heat right back into mechanical energy.

        It does work unfortunately the chemistry is bad. The pistons and cylinders get corroded very badly, the motor oil turns to sludge and the exhaust is pretty nasty.

  6. The article doesn’t go back far enough!

    According to old issues of Scientific American, there were at least two “cold steam” scams, decades apart, which sought investors to develop steam engines that ran on water vapor created without heat. The rhetoric was very familiar; they cultivated suspicion of Big Coal, which would stop at nothing to quash their invention.

  7. Two guys walk into a bar. The first one orders H2O. The second guy says, “That sounds good, I’ll have H20 too. He died. 

    If you know chemistry, you will get the joke. Maybe. 

    1. Common. What do you mean ‘maybe’? 

      Knowledge of chemistry isn’t even really necessary to get this.Alert JR. HS  or elementary school chemistry students should get this.

      Plus, it’s an old joke, like Johnny Carson material.

      1. Alright, alright, I actually was confused until my Shih-Tzu, Cinnamon noticed my grunts of confusion and waddled over to take a look. She told me what to write, I was like HUH? until she reminded me about the diff between Hydrogen Peroxide and Water. 

        Lucky for me hydrogen peroxide bottles are opaque and water bottles are clear. I was frequently truant as a schoolboy — I didn’t really wakeup to book-learning until graduate school when I increased my cannab

        BTW – Cinnamon is a Therapy Dog. Her boss is a school psychologist who splits her time between an elementary school and a middle school so she’s more hip to what the kids are learning than me.

        (Pic is of Cinnamon in the car service van on her way to work)

      2. The ‘maybe’ is part of the joke. 

        Any how, years back my ex-father-in-law was telling me about a great water powered welding machine that makes great welds using water for power. He was serious. 

        A few years after he told me this, I was in a trade school for advanced welding and told the instructors I heard about a water powered welding machine. They laughed their butts off.

  8. Setting aside my desperate struggles in college to fulfill my science requirements, I remembered Arthur C. Clarke’s speculative “Sakharov Drive,” a muon-fueled engine designed to be refuelable with extraterrestrial water sources. Then I remembered reading something about the idea – or a variant of it – being plausible. This was in 1992, when I read “2061.” Then I found this summary ( http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1990spte.conf..189P ) of a symposium proposal by a Canadian aerospace engineer, whose argument for the idea’s viability caused a small group of nerds – including myself – to get all a-tingle with the possibilities.

    I have absolutely no idea about the scalability of the concept for everyday transportation use, but there seem to be people still working on the problem. You could have gotten rich predicting the impossibility of flight until the Wright Bros. came along. And among Clarke’s achievements is coming up with this wackadoo sci-fi fantasy of a geostationary satellite communication system – too bad that thing never went anywhere.

    1. Not directed at you personally, but note that if anyone proposing a novel energy source makes mention of the Wright brothers, you can generally count that as 5 bozo points.

      1. Where would we be now if the Wright brothers hadn’t proved the possibility of heavier-than-air flight by inventing birds?

  9. “The idea itself— to build a car that runs on ordinary water— is total crap, scientifically. It violates at least one law of physics, and pisses off a few others. But the idea behind the idea— a car that runs on something so plentiful and cheap it’s almost valueless— will never go away. It’s just too tantalizing to give up.”

    Pressurized air as a method for storing energy has been looked into as a serious method of propelling cars (& for storing alternate energy generations for use in peak hour). Why would pressurized water be (inefficient perhaps but) infeasible? We call an electric car an electric car no matter the source of the electricity. What about a pressurized water powered car whose pressurization was achieved with the use of hydro or wave or tidal electricity?

    ‘Never say never..’

    1. Cars that run on air actually exist today because air is a compressable gas. You can putt allot of it in a small space and the act of the gas expanding powers the car. Water is almost incompressable, so it cannot work.

      A car running on hydrogen it extracted itself from water also doesn’t work as the act of getting the hydrogen out of the water cost more energy then you would get from it, so it can’t run the car.
      Hydrogen extracted outside of the car via other means obviously does work, but that isn’t a car powered by water. It’s a car running on hydrogen.

    2. Liquid water is for all intents and purposes non-compactable. You can not squish it. Pressurized water would just be heavy and perform zero work.

      I’ll say never on pressurized water.

      1. More than one comment saying water is almost non-compactable. Quite. That’s not to say non-pressurizeable though. Consider the water in the ocean depths – at almost exactly the same volume as water on the surface you’d still certainly want several inches of tough rounded steel between yourself and its force.

        A bit of a failure of imagination from acerplatnoldes. In a water pressure driven world, why not have a pressure hose (that securely screws into the tank I’d imagine) instead of a petrol bowser at the refilling destination? No need to have it at high pressure all through the network or pipes connecting the car to the Dam.

        Besides, ‘better’ isn’t the challenge here. It’s whether its ‘scientifically crap’ (from the article title) i.e possible at all, able to be build as a hobby machine

        An example of a proposition to use the hydraulic force of water as a storage medium on the energy grid:


    3. Pressurised air may have been *looked into* as a serious method of propelling cars, but if so it was then conclusively rejected. The main problem is it’s super inefficient. When you compress the air, it heats up and you turn a lot of the energy you are trying to store into heat that radiates off the container and is lost. When you release the pressurised air to do work, the container drops rapidly in temperature, reducing the effective pressure available.

      You’d be much better off with a big steel spring.

      1. Actually the power comes from the entropy of the water entering the steam engine, not the heat consumed by burning fuels to heat the water which is then fed into the engine. The Hs diagram of a water heating cycle would be a straight line unable to extract any useful energy, actually sorry, it would be a trapazoid consuming energy. For science!

        1. I can’t tell if you’re joking or not, but the energy that can be extracted from a steam engine most certainly does come from the fuel that is being burned.

          This is why we call nuclear power plants “nuclear power” plants, and not “water power” plants.

      2. Of course, if you replaced the water with alcohol and fed the ‘steam’ into the furnace then the working fluid and fuel would be one and the same, which could make for a wonderfully efficient engine/omnidirectional projectile.

    1.  By this reasoning, current-technology cars also “run” on water, when they use it as a coolant.

  10. What happens if I dilute a single drop of gasoline into the water, and then dilute that several more times.

    That’s bound to work!

  11. even if you found an economical way to separate the hydrogen out of water and burnt it for fuel… isn’t water vapor a greenhouse gas?  And wouldn’t this turn our cities into overly-humid hothouses?

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