11:55 AM EDT, April 6, 2011
Did you know that “they” invented a 100-mpg carburetor, and lifetime tires — but then made sure you never saw them? Or that cars could easily run on either air or water, but the oil lobby doesn’t want you to know about it?
It’s true! A colleague recently e-mailed me a story about a Japanese company, Genepax, that invented a “car that runs on nothing but water.” The next thing you know is that they’ll invent one that runs on air. Oh, they did that too? I guess a new era of conflict-free, ultra-green motoring is upon us.
What is it that leads not only bloggers but respectable TV networks to write so uncritically about stuff like this? Let me make it clear here: There’s no energy free lunch. You can’t get cars to run on air without expending tons of energy to compress that air. And the range of a car on compressed air is 10 to 15 miles at best. The Genepax is a conventional fuel-cell car that runs on hydrogen, and it won’t head down the road on water unless it carries an expensive, heavy electrolyzer on board the car. It will run for an hour on just a liter of water! Great, but what did it cost to extract hydrogen from that water, and how much is the electrolyzer ?
“This sounds like one of those ‘violates the second law of thermodynamics’ deals we saw weekly at General Motors,” says Byron McCormick, who headed fuel-cell development at the automaker. “There is no source of energy available to a moving car to replace the energy needed to break water.”
Automakers investigated a version of the Genepax solution when Daimler proposed that cars carry big tanks of methanol, then use an on-board reformer to extract hydrogen on the fly. It wasn’t economical, and confident reports that the automaker would have hundreds of thousands of those cars on the road by 2006 fell by the wayside. Maybe we’ll see commercial fuel-cell cars by 2015, but they’ll carry compressed hydrogen gas, not reformers or electrolyzers.
The water car first surfaced in 2008, and it continues to get enthusiastic press attention, right through last week. The air car is even older than that, and it is always good for another ride in the park, too.
Fox had an enthusiastic but naïve water-based power story a few years ago, showcasing a backyard inventor who was supposedly negotiating with major automakers for the right to his miraculous creation. We’re still waiting for an announcement.
And don’t get me started on air cars, which in the form of the perennially on-its-way technology from French company MDI have gotten huge amounts of free publicity despite many years of failing to deliver on production plans. Popular Mechanics confidently reported that they were coming to our shores in 2009 or 2010, with maybe 1,000 miles of range. And for just $18,000! Last I heard, the Indian automaker Tata was looking at air cars, but don’t hold your breath.
Electric battery cars have range problems, and they’re expensive — but they actually work. We can buy them now in the form of cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. They’re not vaporware. Trust me on the cars that run on air or water. You might as well harness a unicorn to your chariot and run with that.