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Most likely you've seen the advertisements: Power Your Car with Water or something equivalent. The ads are being run by companies selling books, DVDs, even kits that will help you build a system that will, through electrolysis, split water into hydrogen and oxygen to make a gas known as oxyhydrogen or by its nicknames HHO or hydroxy. Oxyhydrogen is an explosive gas that will be fed back into your car's engine to give it a boost and help fuel it.

The devices these companies are promoting are supposed to dramatically increase fuel economy and clean up the exhaust as well. The devices are mostly an electrolyzer with some wiring and plumbing attached. They operate on the electricity generated by your car's engine which is running on gasoline or diesel fuel.

Sound like a scam, or can these systems actually work? Isn't hydrogen still considered a fuel of the future? Should car makers be jumping on the technology?

There's nothing new about the idea of water as fuel. Its been around for decades. None the less, let's take a closer look.

Claiming water as a fuel is not entirely accurate. With these systems a conventional engine is still needed to generate electricity that will operate the electrolyzer to perform the electrolysis that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The engine will still need petroleum fuel to operate. What's really being built with the addition of the device is an HHO/gasoline (or diesel) hybrid where electricity generated by the conventional engine is used to split water, not generate electricity to store in a battery as in a gasoline/electric hybrid.

Will these systems actually improve fuel economy? Possibly. The stock electrical and battery charging system in a car is fairly powerful, certainly enough to split some water apart. (And, additional modifications can make the charging system even more powerful if needed for HHO generation.) However, when the car's electrical system is used to make HHO then it becomes an energy consumer that will burn some conventional fuel. But HHO burnt in the engine will also help, to some small degree, generate more HHO. There could be a net gain in fuel economy if the HHO provides more energy than needed to split water apart. The answer to this question really lies in independent testing. The anecdotal evidence from testimonials from those who have supposedly built and installed these systems isn't quite enough. Testing by an independent, university or government laboratory would help these companies prove their claim.

Would the addition of the HHO gas make the exhaust cleaner? The HHO gas would displace some of the mixture of air and gasoline normally being fed into the engine. HHO gas would contain neither nitrogen nor sulfur, both seeds of air pollution. A little bit of fuel/air mixture displaced by HHO might result in cleaner tailpipe emissions overall.

Then there are safety issues. HHO gas is volatile stuff not to be put in the hands of the inexperienced. Sure, hydrogen gas (without oxygen in the blend) like that being stored for a fuel cell, might also be considered dangerous. But hydrogen fuel by itself, dissipates rapidly when uncontained, left to fly off by itself, thus the threat of explosion also goes away quickly. However, the companies promoting HHO technology claim it's safe because the HHO is made on demand, consumed immediately after it's produced, eliminating an accidental explosion possibility. Still a system might be improperly built or installed that would lead to an explosion. Note that the companies promoting the technology aren't all selling systems, just the plans to build them. (Any company would be crazy to sell something that could feasibly blow up.)

If HHO works why don't car companies pursue it? Forget the idea of cahoots with the oil companies for a moment. Car companies have to build what they consider safe and reliable cars that can be sold across many markets to just about anyone. They may see this as unsafe, or they may have other reasons. For example, pure water couldn't be used in all climates, nor all year round. Water freezes, so would one of these systems when the temperature dropped below 32 F, (0 C).

Somewhere, though, there would be concern for a major disruption in the global petroleum transportation fuel monopoly, should this rather simple technology grab a foothold. The renewable energy industry is considered a disruptive industry: This would be an extremely disruptive technology to pursue.

However, in a time where oil dependance has become an economic security issue it may be time to at least consider this - and any other seemingly offbeat technology - in an attempt to break the stranglehold of addiction that petroleum has on the world.