Fire from Salt Water: Lets Focus, People.

A man in Erie can make salt water burn!

In a manner of speaking, yes. He’s freeing the hydrogen and it makes a flame but really it’s just re-bonding with oxygen so it…

can run an engine with it!

Well, yes, it’s fire, which can do that, but you have to run the radio wave generator and…

We have tons of salt water! We can use this instead of coal and oil!

No no no no no no.


Stop. No. Ow. Can I get an aspirin?

“New Source of Energy in Salt Water” sounds so good you just want to believe it. Bless your little heart for having so much faith in these times of despair and no snow, but unfortunately a gallon of free gas isn’t worth anything if you use up two gallons getting to the station.

Always ask questions. It’s where answers come from. Questions like, if radio waves + salt water = fire, why don’t the oceans ignite from radar? Or, if our bodies are 70% water and some salt, why doesn’t the radio wave generator cause internal bleeding in the guy running it? Here are the most common questions I’ve seen on blog discussions on this topic:

So…can salt water burn or not?

The video isn’t a fake; he’s actually started a fire. But do you think water can burn? Really, does that make sense? Usually water puts fires out. Knowing that, you might suspect that something isn’t being fully explained here. And in fact, this is where most news stories on this are getting things backward: water doesn’t burn. Water is produced when hydrogen “burns”.

It’s really no mystery what’s going on in the video. The hydrogen can’t burn if it’s bound to oxygen (like it is in water). But, if you mix the water with sodium chloride you loosen those bonds. Then, if you do something like hit it with a very strong radio wave, then you separate the hydrogen and oxygen. Now add heat and the hydrogen will make a flame. This is the flame you see in the video. The experimenter has separated the oxygen and hydrogen and is burning the hydrogen, not the water.

But wait. Remember what I said about questions! What does it mean to burn hydrogen? Where does the oxygen go? Here’s where the confusion arises: hydrogen burning = bonding with oxygen to form water. The hydrogen, in order to “burn” must re-bond with the oxygen you just separated it from. You’re just ending up with exactly what you started with but spending energy to get it.

All that the radio man has done is spent energy breaking apart the water bond, given heat to the hydrogen/oxygen mixture, and released a little bit of energy putting them back together. The bottom line is all you are doing is taking apart the water molecules, and by making a flame you put them back together but that does not release any more energy than you’ve already spent. This is not a matter of how efficient the radio wave generator is. This is not a matter of how much salt is in the water. This is simply a matter of understanding what chemical reaction is actually taking place.

What if we get a more efficient radio wave generator?
The inefficiency of this system has nothing to do with the radio wave generator, although it is a bit like pulling apart a piñata with a team of horses (excessive). This has to do with the simple fact that it is impossible to break the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen in water and put them back together (=burn the hydrogen) without losing energy.

But it’s still revolutionary that he’s managed to make flame by splitting water molecules…right?

I sense you’re starting to doubt CNN.

We already know how to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. You can do it at home with a battery. There are lots of very easy ways to do it. This might be the first time someone has done it with a radio wave. But really, there was no need. Check out this website on how you can do it at home:

Fire is energy. We need energy. Can we use this as an energy source?


A guy in a lab shoots a radio wave (using energy) at a beaker of salt water and fire starts atop it (creating energy). Unfortunately, the radio wave (or whatever method you use to break the bonds) consumes more energy than the fire releases. You spend two gallons of gas getting one for free. Therefore, it can’t be used as an energy source, because you haven’t actually found a source of energy. You’ve found a terrible exchange rate.

It costs energy to split the hydrogen and oxygen. Putting them back together does release energy but not as much as you spent breaking them apart. That is just a fact of nature.

If you can’t create energy or destroy it, how can a reaction end up with more or less energy than it started with?
The salt-water-on-fire reaction is a negative energy equation. Negative because you lose some energy to the system around you, or for processes that don’t pay off in the energy release, or just because you took three lefts to make a right. Breaking those bonds might cost more energy than they give back, depending on how you break them. Even if the reaction were perfect, though, you could only get as much energy out as you put in because you’re simply reversing the action.

There are such things as positive energy equations. These exist when energy has been stored in something prior to the start of the reaction, and often involve a catalyst (something to lower the energy needed to make the reaction happen). The best example: gasoline.

Lighting gasoline on fire gives off more energy than the person who ignited it put in. The energy comes from the breaking of chemical bonds. They key is that nature put those bonds together, not us. We’re taking advantage of someone else’s work. It’s what we do when we eat food: the plant got energy from the sun, stored it in a little energy piñata, and we came along, broke it open and took all the candy. So to speak. The earth and millions of years under pressure put energy into oil and coal. The sun could heat things for us. The wind could move things for us. There are ways to get energy out without putting it in, but breaking apart salt water and putting it back together is not one of them.

Is getting energy from water hopeless?

Hard to say. Keep your eye on scientists studying electrolysis, or ways of getting hydrogen out of water with electricity, for new innovations. But the trouble is finding innovative ways to get more energy out, not finding new ways to separate hydrogen and oxygen.

Buzz Skyline pointed out to me that we should look to nature when questioning this phenomenon. Nature is far more resourceful than we are. If there were a way to get energy out of salt water, without spending more energy than you get, there would probably be creatures utilizing it already.

We use energy to turn oil into gasoline, to process it and ship it. It’s getting very expensive and cars aren’t 100% efficient when they burn it; isn’t that putting in more energy than it’s getting out?
Possibly. This is partly why oil prices fluctuate so much. Some people might argue that we put more energy (and money) into getting oil than we can actually use it for, especially with the environmental costs. For that reason, people might think that we should at least investigate this salt water thing to see if it turns up something useful and less harmful. But remember that burning hydrogen is really what you’d be talking about. For that, there is no reason to use the radio waves or to break apart water; we have un-bonded hydrogen in the air.

And remember that neither hydrogen in the air nor in seawater is a renewable resource. We could still run into ecological problems if we tried to use either of those.

Plus, if we just offer ourselves another energy source that doesn’t make us change anything, doesn’t make us more aware of our energy spending, and which potentially hurts our ecosystem in another way, then what good have we done? Ideally, hydrogen cars would replace gas cars without disrupting the driving schedule of most Americans. But what does that teach us about solving the problems we create? Even hybrid cars give a false pat on the back to consumers because we think a handful is making a difference. We need to stop looking for a magical solution to the energy crisis and admit that there are solutions available, but accepting them would just mean being aware of the problem we’ve created.

You’re being awfully nice about this whole thing. Doesn’t it make you just a little bit ANGRY that the news is manipulating this story to make people think we’ve found a new energy source, and that people aren’t taking the time to question why this hasn’t been used already, or why a retired radio technician is being treated like a revolutionary physicist?

Good question.

And remember kids, the inventor of fire breathing salt water says:

“This is the most abundant element on Earth. Water. Salt water.”

I’ll just let the chem geeks stew on that one.

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