12 September 2007

Can we really set fire to water?

By
Cosmos Online
A U.S. broadcast executive-turned-scientist has seemingly found a way to burn seawater. Though it has the air of a hoax, if true, it could be one of the biggest discoveries in chemistry in recent times.
Can we really set fire to water?

Smoke and mirrors?: The extraordinary claims have sparked a frenzy of interest across the Internet. Credit: iStockphoto

SYDNEY: A U.S. broadcast executive-turned-scientist has seemingly found a way to burn seawater. Though it has the air of a hoax, if true, it could be one of the biggest discoveries in chemistry in recent times.

John Kanzius, from Erie, Pennsylvania, blasted a test tube of salt water with high frequency radio waves, causing the water to burn like a candle, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper. Chemist Rustum Roy from Pennsylvania State University told the same newspaper that he had confirmed the phenomenon by replicating the experiment himself.

Though the technique and results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, they are sparking a frenzy of interest on the Internet, where video clips showing the technique are beginning to circulate (such as this one on YouTube).

“Enormous potential”

“Certainly it’s interesting,” physical chemist, Scott Kable, of the University of Sydney in Australia, told Cosmos Online. The technique is theoretically possible and has “enormous potential,” he said. But without more information, Kable commented, the mechanism and role of salt and other electrolytes remains unknown.

Roy explained to the Post-Gazette, that the water itself doesn’t burn. His best guess is that the energy from the radio waves breaks the bonds between the molecules, releasing hydrogen that can be ignited with a flame. The temperature of the flame was measured at 1,650 °C.

The accidental discovery came out of research Kanzius was motivated to undertake when he found out he had cancer. The TV station owner decided to use his broadcast knowledge to experimentally fry cancer cells using radio waves in a garage laboratory at his home. Kanzius added a solution of nano-sized gold and carbon particles into a test tube of tumour cells. He predicted that the particles would migrate to the cancer cells and act as an antenna for the searing heat produced by radio waves – in the process killing the cells. It’s not clear how he planned to target cancer cells within the body.

However, when someone noticed condensation in the test tubes, Kanzius decided to try the technique for desalinating water. The subsequent blast of high frequency radio waves caused the water to seem to give off a gas that he was able to ignite with a match.

Future fuel

Kanzius now speculates that the technique could be used to burn water to produce energy – he says he has built an engine that runs off the heat produced by the flame. However, even if the claims turn out to be true, it remains to be seen if the energy produced could compensate for the radio wave energy required for the reaction.

Kanzius is seeking a patent on the technique and is currently tight-lipped on a more detailed explanation.

The most important potential application of the discovery is the safe production of hydrogen, said the University of Sydney’s Kable. Presently, hydrogen is produced either from reacting natural gas and steam, which emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, or by sending an electric current through water. The highly flammable gas requires transport in tankers, a dangerous prospect. Kable says that the ability to produce hydrogen from water while it’s already inside an engine would be an extremely useful and safe method.

But don’t worry about setting fire to your cup of coffee in the microwave. Kable believes that the amount of energy required to break molecular bonds far exceeds the energy produced in the fire. This means any practical application is likely a long way off.

NEWSLETTER

Sign up to our free newsletter and have "This Week in Cosmos" delivered to your inbox every Monday.

>> More information
Latest
issue
CONNECT
Like us on Facebook
Follow @CosmosMagazine
Add Cosmos to your Google+ circles

Get a weekly dose of Cosmos delivered straight to your inbox!

  • The latest in science each week
  • All the updates on our new website launch
  • Exclusive offers and competitions

Enter your name and email address below: