Salt Water Can "Burn," Scientist Confirms

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 14, 2007
Salt water can indeed burn when exposed to a certain kind of radio wave, a university chemist has confirmed.

Rustum Roy of Pennsylvania State University verified earlier this month that the radio waves break the water into its components, allowing the resulting freed hydrogen and oxygen to catch fire.

Independent scientists said the phenomenon is credible as explained, though practical applications of the technology remain uncertain and it's unlikely to be a source of cheap energy.

"It seems like, to me, an interesting set of processes that's been uncovered," said George Sverdrup, a technology manager at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

"That doesn't say much for its applicability or any possibility for the marketplace, though, at this point."

Accidental Discovery

John Kanzius of Sanibel, Florida, first happened upon the phenomenon earlier this year when running experiments with a radio frequency generator he designed to help zap cancer cells.

When he trained the radio waves on a test tube of salt water, it produced an unexpected spark, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Curious, Kanzius and colleagues decided to ignite the water with a match. The water lit and kept burning as long as it remained in the radio frequency field.

Pennsylvania State University's Roy then followed up, intrigued by the technology's potential applications for desalination and hydrogen fuel.

He found that the phenomenon works by breaking water into oxygen, hydrogen, and salt. The hydrogen is combustible and will burn as long as it remains within the radio frequency field.

He held public demonstrations last Thursday.

"It's scientifically absolutely true," Roy said.

When hydrogen burns, its reacts with oxygen to re-form water, he added.

Energy Costs

NREL's Sverdrup said scientists will need to evaluate the energy costs of the process. Energy is required to bind salt water's chemical bonds and water molecules, he noted.

"If hydrogen and oxygen are liberated, sufficient energy to break those chemical bonds has to be put into that system," he explained.

That energy "presumably" comes from the radio frequency generator, he added.

Daniel Kammen directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. While he remains skeptical about the phenomenon as an energy source, he said, "it sure would be neat if true."

He explained that hydrogen is the most common element on Earth and a great fuel if pure, but it is always locked with at least one other element—oxygen to form water or carbon to form methane, for example. (Related: "Is Hydrogen the Gasoline of the Future?" [September 9, 2003].)

Today most hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuels like natural gas by burning them, which releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Water can also be split into hydrogen using electricity, in a process known as hydrolysis. But this is inefficient and requires large amounts of power.

So researchers would like to find ways to isolate hydrogen with minimal energy and no fossil fuels, Kammen said. (Related: "New Process Could Help Make Hydrogen Fuel Affordable" [August 27, 2004].)

The burning water technology could potentially open such a door, he added.

Solar, wind, or wave energy, for example, could power the radio frequency generator, he said. As salt water passes through the generator, the hydrogen would be released.

"That would be a remarkable source of hydrogen and then you could either burn the hydrogen directly or use it in a fuel cell," he said. (Read more on hydrogen fuel cells.)

Penn State's Roy points out that no one has yet looked into the energy balance of the process—how much energy is put in and how much is released.

Nor, he added, are the environmental impacts of the process known.

For now, the most immediate potential technology application is desalination—the process of removing salt from water—because the water formed after combustion is free of salt and other contaminants.

"It's really a miraculous process: water-breakup-water," Roy said.

Further Research

Brent Haddad directs the Center for Integrated Water Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

He commented in an email that the "research is located in the right place: at the nexus of energy production and water treatment. But it is too early to tell what the practical applications will be."

Roy met Monday with officials from the U.S. departments of defense and energy to discuss the discovery and seek research funding.

He said entrepreneurs from all over the world are also contacting him via email.

"They are all saying, Holy cow, everything has changed."

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