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Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that cars can be modified to run on water. How is this possible?  -- Diane McMorris, Rockport, ME

There are a number of online marketing offers of kits that will convert your car to “run on water,” but these should be viewed skeptically. These kits, which attach to the car’s engine, use electrolysis to split the water (H2O) into its component molecules—hydrogen and oxygen—and then inject the resulting hydrogen into the engine’s combustion process to power the car along with the gasoline. Doing this, they say, makes the gasoline burn cleaner and more completely, thus making the engine more efficient.

But experts say the energy equation on this type of system is not, in reality, efficient at all. For one, the electrolysis process uses energy, such as electricity in the home or the on-board car battery, to operate. By the laws of nature, then, the system uses more energy making hydrogen than the resulting hydrogen itself can supply, according to Dr. Fabio Chiara, research scientist in alternative combustion at the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University.

Moreover, Chiara says, the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the vehicle “would be much larger, because two combustion processes [gasoline and hydrogen] are involved.” Finally, there is a safety consideration for consumers who add these devices to their cars. “H2 is a highly flammable and explosive gas,” he says, and would require special care in installation and use.

The electrolysis process could be viable in saving energy if a renewable, non-polluting energy source such as solar or wind could be harnessed to power it, although capturing enough of that energy source on board the car would be another hurdle.

Researchers today put more focus on using hydrogen to power fuel cells, which can replace internal combustion engines to power cars and emit only water from the tailpipe. And though hydrogen is combustible and can power an internal combustion engine, to use hydrogen in that way would squander its best potential: to power a fuel cell.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are gaining traction, but commercialization of hydrogen fuel has not yet been accomplished. “The potential benefits of fuel cells are significant,” say researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “[H]owever, many challenges must be overcome before fuel cell systems will be a competitive alternative for consumers.”

The state of California operates a “Hydrogen Highway” program that supports development of hydrogen fuel cell technology and infrastructure. And many companies are working on ways to produce, store and dispense hydrogen. Cars powered by fuel cells are in prototype stages now, nearing production.

While we all wait to see how that shakes out, the best choice today for high mileage and low emissions is still the gasoline/electric hybrid car.

CONTACTS:
Center for Automotive Research, http://car.eng.ohio-state.edu; NREL, www.nrel.gov; California Hydrogen Highway, www.hydrogenhighway.ca.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: What effects do fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used on residential lawns or on farms have on nearby water bodies like rivers, streams—or even the ocean for those of us who live near the shore?  -- Linda Reddington, Manahawkin, NJ

With the advent of the so-called Green Revolution in the second half of the 20th century—when farmers began to use technological advances to boost yields—synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides became commonplace around the world not only on farms, but in backyard gardens and on front lawns as well.

These chemicals, many of which were developed in the lab and are petroleum-based, have allowed farmers and gardeners of every stripe to exercise greater control over the plants they want to grow by enriching the immediate environment and warding off pests. But such benefits haven’t come without environmental costs—namely the wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.

When the excess nutrients from all the fertilizer we use runs off into our waterways, they cause algae blooms sometimes big enough to make waterways impassable. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic species can’t survive in these so-called “dead zones” and so they die or move on to greener underwater pastures.

A related issue is the poisoning of aquatic life. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Americans alone churn through 75 million pounds of pesticides each year to keep the bugs off their peapods and petunias. When those chemicals get into waterways, fish ingest them and become diseased. Humans who eat diseased fish can themselves become ill, completing the circle wrought by pollution.

A 2007 study of pollution in rivers around Portland, Oregon found that wild salmon there are swimming around with dozens of synthetic chemicals in their systems. Another recent study from Indiana found that a variety of corn genetically engineered to produce the insecticide Bt is having toxic effects on non-target aquatic insects, including caddis flies, a major food source for fish and frogs.

The solution, of course, is to go organic, both at home and on the farm. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic farmers and gardeners use composted manure and other natural materials, as well as crop rotation, to help improve soil fertility, rather than synthetic fertilizers that can result in an overabundance of nutrients. As a result, these practices protect ground water supplies and avoid runoff of chemicals that can cause dead zones and poisoned aquatic life.

There is now a large variety of organic fertilizer available commercially, as well as many ways to keep pests at bay without resorting to harsh synthetic chemicals. A wealth of information on growing greener can be found online: Check out OrganicGardeningGuru.com and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Alternative Farming System Information Center, for starters. Those interested in face-to-face advice should consult with a master gardener at a local nursery that specializes in organic gardening.

CONTACTS: CDC, www.cdc.gov; Organic Gardening Guru, www.organicgardeningguru.com; USDA’s Alternative Farming System Information Center, www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml.
www.Dishmag.com / Issue 104 - September 5482
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