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Thursday, May 04, 2006

 

Can water be converted to gasoline?

There are quite a few conspiracy theories surrounding oil companies and the price of gasoline. I've already covered the claim that the oil industry has concealed a 200 mpg carburetor. One other persistant claim is that the oil industry has supressed a secret formula that can be added to water to turn it into gasoline, or at least something that works as a viable substitute. The Straight Dope, for example, covered
the case of Guido Franch, a swindler who pretended he could turn water into gasoline. He had been caught switching the water with a small tank of gasoline, and the powder turned out to be vegetable dye.

With con men like this promoting such a thing, it's easy to dismiss it as a complete fraud. But I wouldn't be much of a mad scientist if I didn't at least try to figure out what the formula might be. So, ignoring the part about it being a pill or small quantity of powder, I sat down and took a look at what might be required to take water and turn it into a suitable fuel that you could burn in a car.

Sure, you could split the water into hydrogen and oxygen and call it a day. But most versions of the story have the water turning into a room temperature liquid. Most of the fuels fitting that description are hydrocarbons. I first tried to see if I could find a formula that would turn water into methanol (CH3OH), which is a nice simple liquid that contains oxygen and hydrogen. Converting a gasoline engine to run on it requires some tweaks to the fuel system, but it's a lot easier to run than hydrogen. The simplest formula I could think of was to use ethylene, a gas containing two carbon atoms and four hydrogen atoms.

C2H4 + 2 H2O -> 2 CH3OH

Pretty simple, except that ethylene is normally synthesized from natural gas, and you can just convert the car to burn natural gas directly. So while this is a way to make fuel that uses water as an ingredient, it's not exactly a useful solution to high gas prices.

This also shows one thing about converting water to gasoline: You'll need to add carbon. Why not just take a big chunk of raw carbon? Conveniently, we have a lot of coal, which is pretty much straight carbon. I did a little digging around, and sure enough, scientists already have worked out ways to do this, such as the Fischer-Tropsch process. This starts with coal and water, and can make gasoline, diesel fuel, or many other petrochemical products. It's been used in large scale factories before, and people are working on building new plants, such as a synthetic diesel fuel factory in Pennsylvania. The biggest obstacle has been cost, and right now the price of oil is so high it just might be commercially viable.

So while these processes require plenty of other ingredients, there really are ways to use water to make a substitute for gasoline. And in a couple years, we just might see the results at a gas station near you.

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Comments:
Why bother when we have enough stockpiled in Alaska to last and last...
 
Well, if last and last you mean one years' supply...
 
I guess if water can be turned into wine, which is a form of alcohol, why not turn it into gasoline, another form of alcohol. Heaven knows, especially now, we could really use it!
 
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