Sunday, August 05, 2012

How to think about the claim of a water-powered car?

by Salman Hameed

An engineer in Pakistan, Agha Waqar Ahmad, is claiming that he has invented a "water-kit" that allows cars to run on water alone. Okay - so lets cut to the chase. This is most likely bad science (a violation of 2nd law of thermodynamics) or possibly outright fraud. But that is not the point of this post. There are a number of good articles that have come out challenging the claim - and I have posted Pervez Hoodbhoy's article below. What is striking about this story is not the claim itself. There are many people who make bold, audacious claims that are often wrong. I get regular e-mails from people who have solved some of the ultimate questions in cosmology - and they are often making simple mistakes. That is no big deal. One always has the delete button.

The key surprise in the water-kit story is the reaction of the media, the government, and some of the scientists. The media not only covered the story, but framed it in the context of elevating Pakistan's image in the world. Some of the senior government officials peddled it as a solution to the energy crisis - and a diversion from the myriad of problems currently facing Pakistan. And the credulous reaction of some of the scientists - including the infamous AQ Khan - hmm...well...I'm at a loss for words to possibly explain this reaction of scientists.

I was trying to figure out how to evaluate this episode. This is indeed Exhibit A in the demonstration of the lack of scientific culture at some of the most important levels of Pakistani society. In particular it exposes the hyper-reactive media and the way they frame the story in a jingoistic manner. But this media-reaction is now a world-wide problem - and therefore, we need some basic critical thinking skills in evaluating claims.

It is this area that exposes the credulity of some of the senior government officials. For example, a basic knowledge of the nature of his claim (the violation of the second law of thermodynamics) and how such breakthroughs are announced. Just look the academic spat over the discovery of possible life forms in Martian meteorite, ALH 84001, or the more recent debunked claims of faster than light neutrinos. It is not that new discoveries are not made or that the second law of thermodynamics is sacred. But rather that any news regarding the violation of a well-tested law requires multiple tests before we can sure of the new claim, let alone being peddled as a solution to energy crisis.

The pertinent question is: Has there been decline of a scientific culture in Pakistan? I don't know the answer. After all, the government did host a hilarious Islamic Science conference in the 1980s (some of the details were presented by Pervez Hoodbhoy in his 1992 book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the battle for Rationality). This puts to rest the idea that there were more institutional checks when it came to science. From this perspective, the more sensationalist media is the new ingredient that may be be providing a particular frame to fuel claims like the water car. But I'm also heartened by the number of op ed pieces being written to shame all those who succumbed to this claim.

In any case, I don't think the central blame for this debacle lies with the engineer who made the claim of the water car. There are always people making outrageous claims. The blame, in this particular case, lies with the people who used the claim to propagate their own agendas - be it the ratings or a short-lived political slogan.

Here is a clip of a relatively well-respected talk show that features the 'inventor' of the water kit (tip from Zakir Thaver):

And here is an excerpt from an excellent article by Pervez Hoodbhoy on this whole episode:

At first, it sounded like a joke: a self-styled engineer, trained in Khairpur’s polytechnic institute, claims to have invented a ‘water kit’ enabling any car to run on water alone. It didn’t matter that the rest of world couldn’t extract energy from water; he had done it. He promised a new Pakistan with limitless energy, no need for petrol or gas, and no more loadshedding. For an energy starved nation, it is a vision of paradise. 
Agha Waqar Ahmad is now a national celebrity thanks to Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah. Federal ministers Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani and Qamar Zaman Kaira have added their commendations. President Asif Ali Zardari has expressed his delight. The cabinet has met three times to discuss the water vehicle, and a fourth meeting is scheduled. Reports suggest millions may be spent on the ‘water fuel kit project’. 
The media has rushed in to celebrate the new national hero. For TV anchor Talat Husain, thanks to Agha Waqar Ahmad’s invention, Pakistan’s image can go from a country ravaged by terrorism to one of boundless possibilities. Anchor Hamid Mir and Senator Parvaiz Rasheed drove around Islamabad sitting next to the inventor, wondering how to protect the man’s life from Western oil companies. Anchor Arshad Sharif was euphoric about the $14 billion Pakistan would save on oil imports. 
Pakistan’s most celebrated scientists were not far behind. Asked by Anchor Sharif whether a car could run only on water, nuclear hero Dr Samar Mubarakmand replied without hesitation: “jee haan, bilkul ho sakta hai” (yes, absolutely possible). For his part, Hamid Mir asked Dr AQ Khan if there was any chance of this being a fraud. The response was clear: “Main nay apnay level per investigate kiya hai aur koi fraud waraud nahi kiya hai” (I have investigated the matter and there is no fraud involved). The head of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Dr Shaukat Parvaiz, went further: “hum nay bhi iss pay kam karaya tha” (we had some work done on this too). 
So, what is the problem? It’s that the laws of physics, in particular a fundamental scientific principle known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, impose inviolable constraints. Every machine constructed anywhere uses the Second Law. This is something that I learned in my first year as a student at MIT and have taught for 40 years. No serious scientist would dream of challenging the Second Law. Agha Waqar Ahmad’s ‘water kit’, if one believes science to be right, simply cannot work. What the inventor, the ministers, the anchors and scientists claim on TV is wrong.
But this episode raises bigger questions. Scientific frauds exist in other countries, but what explains their spectacular success in Pakistan? Answer: our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence. It is easy for them all to get away with this. As a nation, we have proven unwilling to do the hard work needed to learn to reason, to be sceptical, to demand proof, to understand even basic science. It is easier to believe the world is run by magic and conspiracies, to wish and wait for Aladin’s magic lamp. We live in the age of jahilliya.
Read the full article here. You can also find a story on this claim in the New York Times here.


Anonymous said...

Just one question...isn't such a claim more precisely a violation of FIRST law of thermodynamics?

Salman Hameed said...

Good question. It depends on how the engine is working. If it is doing 'work' without appropriate input of energy, then it violates the first law. If it is converting all of its thermal energy into mechanical energy (without any loss), then it is violating the second law (energy can still be conserved in this case). I think the claim here is that the cost of energy required to dissociate water molecules is negligible and all of the resultant energy goes into mechanical. At least that's my my read on it from the cursory reports. The problem is that Agha Waqar Ahmad was not much interested in thermodynamics, but rather in the practical claim. Again - as I said in the post, people are always making outstanding claims. The central issue is the judgment call on when and where we pay attention to such claims.

Laura said...

With large regions of the world plagued by drought, I am not sure that a "water car" offers the best solution to the energy crisis. Now, a car that ran on hot air would really take advantage of what we have in abundance (double entendre intended).

Jacob Doyle said...

The laws of science should be respected. Manned flight was a well-documented impossibility, as was flight in excess of the speed of sound. Both manned flight and supersonic flight in particular are clear violations of physical laws. How the violators have escaped punishment baffles me. What's more, a water engine would not only violate physical laws, it would cost world governments so dearly in lost taxes it could bring their downfall. Moreover it would empower the riffraff and deprive respectable power companies. Whether it works or not, it will soon be dismissed as fraud.

Salman Hameed said...

Dear Blog Portal,

Actually neither the manned flight nor the supersonic were considered violations of physical laws - but rather technical improbabilities. But I get your point. However, remember that for every General Theory of Relativity, you have at least a million faulty claims. The way science works is by testing and then testing again and then yet again. Look at the claim of the faster than speed neutrinos. How it fizzled out quickly after another group re-tested it and could not replicate the results. Now it is possible that the power companies may have gotten to them also. But the water-kit has to be subjected to rigorous testing - and that is not what has happened. Plus, the results have to be published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. May be we do have a breakthrough - but without these steps, skepticism towards these claims is the appropriate reaction.

Emily said...

Good point Laura! Especially in the Middle East...wouldn't a water-powered car just add another reason for everyone to be concerned over water?! Get to work on a dirt powered car please!

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