Salt Water Can "Burn," Scientist Confirms

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"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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