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Hydrogen power or just hot air?

Bill with the hydrogen cell he has installed on his Subaru station wagon.
Bill with the hydrogen cell he has installed on his Subaru station wagon.

It sounds too good to be true, but ‘Bangalow’ Bill Jenner claims to have reduced his fuel consumption by up to 75%.

Bill is a retired mechanic and about a year ago he installed a hydrogen cell under the bonnet of his Subaru station wagon. It is a simple-looking device that he built himself. Inside a plastic casing are a series of stainless steel cylinders that are separated by plastic insulators. The cylinders are covered with water and the device is connected up to the car battery, which converts the water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then sucked into the engine, supposedly increasing the power of the car and reducing the amount of petrol it has to burn to get from A to B.

Bill said the parts for his hydrogen cell cost him about $50.

“My son got it off the web... There’s a plan and everything,” Bill said enthusiastically.

Three generations of Jenners have made and installed hydrogen cells for their cars.

Bill said it takes about 20 minutes for the water to “cook up” before it produces hydrogen. It is then sucked directly into the engine, under the carburettor.

“Most cars have got a vacuum hose that goes to the distributor to work the vacuum advance. You could connect it up to that if you want to, as long as it’s getting sucked into the motor,” Bill said. “You can feel the gas coming on (when you are driving). You have to be careful. You have to lift your foot off the accelerator. I got caught speeding once.”

Bill said he also has to stop every 100 kilometres or so to pour another cup of water onto the cylinders.

“The water has to be roughly level with the top of the tubes,” he said.

He advises using pure rainwater or spring water as opposed to tap water, which has a few other nasty chemicals in it.

“You can put a pinch of rock salt in to help activate the water and get it going. You don’t need much, just a pinch.”

In the year or so that he has had it running, Bill said he hasn’t had any problems other than a screw falling off. The only maintenance it needs is to be washed out with a hose every now and then and he said the biggest problem he had was finding somewhere to install it.

“I had to take the spare wheel out and put it in the back!” he said. “There’s a bloke down at Lennox Head who is running a Holden engine on it. He’s got a big tank on the front bumper bar of his turbo diesel 4WD. He couldn’t get it under the bonnet, no way. He said ‘I don’t care what the bugger looks like’. The hose goes straight into the turbo charger intake.”

After hearing about Bill’s hydrogen car, The Echo did some web surfing and found dozens of sites that claim they can show you how to build your own hydrogen cell and install it onto a conventional petrol or diesel engine. (Some websites will sell you a book or a kit; others have plans available for free. Claims about the increase in fuel efficiency range from 25% to 75%.)

Essentially they are all based on the same idea: that a water molecule (H2O) can be converted to Oxyhydrogen (HHO). The gas is sometimes referred to as Brown’s Gas after the Australian inventor Yull Brown, who is credited as being the first person to come up with a water electrolysis process that was a non-explosive way of separating water into oxygen and hydrogen. It was patented in Australia in 1977 and in 30 other countries after that.

But if it is so simple and so cheap to do, why isn’t everybody doing it?

Surely the world is falling over itself to find alternatives to oil-based petroleum. All of the major car manufacturers have hydrogen cars in development and many people see it as the most likely fuel source of the future. But in the short term, if there is a way that we can cut our fuel consumption in half, why are these hydrogen cells still the domain of backyard mechanics and not part of the mainstream?

Bill threw up some conspiracy theories about the major oil companies not wanting anyone to know about it, and there does seem to be some evidence that an American oil company tried to buy Yull Brown’s invention so they could shelve it.

But there is also a lot of debate online about whether it is a scam and whether or not the hydrogen cell actually improves fuel efficiency.

One website (Aardvark.co.nz) said, “Because there all sorts of losses involved in the generation of the electricity, the delivery of it to the electrolysis cell and then the combustion process, we actually recover far less energy from burning the hydrogen than it took to create it. So, once those losses are taken into account, these useless devices will actually cause your car to use more fuel – that extra fuel doing nothing more than heating the water in that electrolysis cell and the wires that lead to it.”

Other sites suggest than any ‘perceived’ efficiency is the result of the driver easing off on the accelerator.

There is also some concern that modern cars that have a computer to monitor the air/fuel mixture could adjust it incorrectly and therefore cause damage to the engine.

Jack Haley is the senior policy adviser for the NRMA and said they are approached by hundreds of people every year wanting to have their device tested or endorsed.

“There are so many of these things around that we just don’t have the resources. We advise people to have them tested [at their own expense] to the appropriate Australian Standard 4430 which relates to design or additions to improve engine performance, and if the owner or promoter can forward the results, we will have a look at them,” he said.

Mr Haley said so far only the Fitch Fuel Catalyst, which is a fuel treatment device not a hydrogen cell, had done this and had showed no improvement in fuel efficiency.

Mr Haley also said people considering installing a hydrogen cell should check with their insurance company and the RTA about any modifications to their vehicle.

Bill said he didn’t think he was doing anything particularly radical when he installed his hydrogen cell.

“It was just something to do... I’m a mechanic and I design things as well.

“I don’t travel that far, but I tell you what, it would be really good if you were travelling long distances. I can go from here to Lismore or Ballina for almost nothing,” he said proudly.

With anything that seems too good to be true it’s probably good to keep your bullshit detector on high alert. The Echo admits to having limited understanding about the physics and mechanics of engines, but Bill seems to be a credible source with no vested interest in promoting his device.

Bill is nearly 85 years old and worked as a mechanic since he was 14. By the time he was 19 he was the foreman of the company he worked for in Melbourne and was given the role of “fault finder”.

“Cars would come in and I’d have to find out what the trouble was and then hand it over to the mechanic and say ‘do this or do that’ to fix it, you see.”

He owned and ran three service stations in his life, one in South Gippsland (Victoria) and then in Lennox Head and Bangalow.

He has had two people contact him about his hydrogen cell and made and installed cells for them, but he is not interested in doing any more.

He would rather go busking with his harmonicas and accordion.

“I can go to Lismore and play in the street for an hour and make $156...When I sold the garage I used to have a lot of guys coming around here wanting me to do jobs because they knew I did good work, but I couldn’t make $35 an hour so I said to the wife, ‘it’s not worth it’. I can stand in the street and enjoy myself without getting my hands all covered in grease and I can play the button accordion and talk to people and I enjoy it. So I’m not going to work on bloody cars.”

However Bill said he was happy to take calls from people who wanted more information. His phone number is 6687 1027.


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