Hot air?

The car in the nearby parking lot had a sticker on it that read “hydrogen hybrid”. Intriguingly, it was not one of those sleek hydrogen-powered BMWs that I have seen on slick motor shows being touted as the vehicle of the future.

The hydrogen BMW is ready to go — all it needs is enough garages to supply the hydrogen, a great clean-burning fuel that produces only water as waste.

Well, it also needs a lot of energy to make the hydrogen, so the idea is a little still-born as yet. But the stickered car I was looking at was a skedonk.

The owner got out and opened the bonnet. I had to take a look. Inside was a conventional engine with a flask. The flask produced hydrogen, which fed the engine.

I said that it was my understanding that hydrogen needed a tonne of energy to produce. No, he said, in this system the engine produced the hydrogen.

Fuel savings were in the order of between 20% and 80% and there were far fewer emissions. Kits, available at R4 950, were very easy to install or, alternatively, my hydrogen-powered contact could do it for me at the nominal cost of R750.

HHO hydrogen hybrids
I asked how it was that these cars were not better known and was told that they were used overseas and even the United States military was looking at running their Hummers as HHO hydrogen hybrids, as the system is called.

I took a business card and started calculating. At just a 30% fuel saving I would save about R300 a month. HHO would pay for itself in 18 months.
One of my favourite things is meeting free-thinking people.

In energy these include a guy who made two of his own battery-powered cars, engineers at Eskom who converted an Opel Corsa bakkie to run off electricity and a developer who built his own rock store to cool an office building. But what about a hydrogen-powered car?

The business card directed me to a website where there was more information about the skedonk, a 1995 Fiat Uno with 425 000km on the clock. “Before fitting an HHO hybrid power module it returned an average fuel consumption of 13,4km per litre. Since fitting with the module it regularly averages 22,6km/litre.

Despite the BIG mileage on the little engine, not only has nothing broken or failed, the little car runs smoother and quieter — and the performance is now like a robust 1 300cc rather than a tiny 1 100!” the website said.

It said that if you spent R12 000 annually on your fuel bill, you could save as much as R7 200. It added that the end product of burning HHO in an internal combustion engine was water. “No CO¸ or any other gases or poisons are produced.”

The website said that HHO was generally safer to operate than ­petrol. “While we all know that hydrogen is one of the most dangerously explosive substances known to man, it is stored in H¸O form in your car, providing the atomic power of hydrogen with the stability and safety of water.”

No inspiration
A single litre of H¸O produced a massive 1 880 litres of HHO, so the system was convenient too, as you didn’t have to carry hundreds of kilograms of water. The HHO was only released on demand, as your engine needed it. But the website did not inspire confidence.

The site, which makes use of free web hosting, did not include a physical business address for the vendor and there was little to back up the many claims that its promoter, whose name turns out to be Harry, made.

I clicked over to Google and YouTube to find out more. There are a number of videos that make very similar claims.

Typically the video shows you how the system works in some detail, but you do not get to see who has made the video and no contact details are provided. But you do not have to spend long on the web at all to come across a body of material in which HHO has been shown not to work.

These include articles by market leaders Popular Mechanics, NBC and Mythbusters and postings on the internet debunking site,

NBC produced a three-part series on hydrogen-assisted technologies. It interviewed Mike Allen of Popular Mechanics who said he had tested dozens of these devices. Asked if he had found any to work he answered: “Never.”

NBC hired a company that tests vehicles for emissions compliance to test its fuel efficiency before and after a hydrogen device was fitted. The tests showed no difference in fuel economy or in emissions.

Allen told NBC that the small quantities of hydrogen the device made was not enough to run a car.

Building a serviceable hydrogen generator
Writing on the Popular Mechanics website, he said: “This doesn’t exactly rival string theory in its complexity. You can build a serviceable hydrogen generator from an old peanut-butter-jar and some left-over copper pipe or roof flashing.

Just use some aquarium tubing to duct the hydrogen-oxygen mix (usually abbreviated as HHO) into the intake manifold, and you’ll see the gas gauge stay at ‘Full’ a bit longer-or so they say.

“When these devices first hit the net, I had an immediate opinion — rubbish. It’s bad science. This malarkey boiled down to perpetual motion — something for nothing.

Essentially, it takes more energy — in the form of the chemical energy in the gasoline you’re burning in the engine to spin the alternator to make the electricity and generate the HHO — than you get back.

“In fact, it’s not even close: multiply all the inefficiencies in that system and you only get a few percent back, certainly not in excess of 100%.”

Allen said that in one of the NBC tests of the hydrogen system there was a tiny increase in fuel consumption when the system was turned on. “I attribute this to the 15 amps or so of current the electrolysis cell consumes to produce hydrogen. That current uses horsepower to spin the generator and that consumes gasoline. The hydrogen ‘boost’ couldn’t even compensate for its own losses.”

“Greater fuel efficiency”
I mailed Harry, who turns out to be Harry Heydon. I asked for his response to the Popular Mechanics and NBC reports and said: Your advertising material makes some generous claims for HHO and you charge a lot of money for both the device and the franchise opportunities [you can buy a franchise for R50 000 or the whole business for R10-million]. Please supply any third-party material you have that validates these claims.

Heydon sent me a set of web links that are meant to prove that users have found greater fuel efficiency, diss authoritative reports, show that the US government even allows tax breaks for HHO vehicles, and show that government agencies, Nasa among them, have found support for hydrogen as a fuel additive.

One of the links was to Yahoo Answers. The “best answer” to the question, “Does HHO work to improve mileage”, reads: “It’s a scam.” Another asks on a web forum if it is possible to apply for a tax credit if you use HHO.

Yet another puts up a link to a 1977 Nasa document that found that hydrogen improved fuel efficiency.

This may or may not be the case. But HHO has clearly taken on some kind of life of its own on the internet, sustained by vendors who are profiting from stupidity, coupled with the belief that Big Oil in conspiracy with Big Motor and, possibly, Big Media have been able to hoodwink motorists globally by making them drive vehicles that are grossly inefficient while significantly and unnecessarily contributing to emissions build-up and global warming.

A web search on Harry Heydon tells me that he is a pastor and web entrepreneur who is apparently active in both poverty alleviation and get-rich-quick schemes.

One is the Money Spear, “a very POWERFUL system that costs only $5,00 to become part of, yet could earn as much as $2 300 000”.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.


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