Pakistani officials who have failed for years to fix the country's rampant energy shortages have latched on to a local engineer's dubious claim to have invented a water-fuelled car, sparking criticism from experts who bemoan what the episode says about the sorry state of the government.
Pakistan's water car
Excitement over the supposed discovery has been fueled by sensationalist TV talk show hosts, who have hailed the middle-aged engineer, Agha Waqar Ahmed, as a national hero and gushed about the billions of dollars Pakistan could save on oil imports.
Several prominent Pakistani scientists have also jumped on the bandwagon, including the head of the government's top scientific council and another state-run science foundation.
The only catch seems to be that developing a vehicle that efficiently runs on water defies the basic laws of physics, detractors say. Critical Pakistani scientists say it is the car's battery, not the water, that's key to powering the vehicle. That has done little to dent the hype surrounding Ahmed's invention.
"Demonstration of water-fuelled car astonishes experts," read the headline in Dawn newspaper at the end of July after the engineer drove his vehicle in front of a crowd of over 100 Pakistani officials, engineers, scientists and journalists at a sprawling sports complex in Islamabad.
Ahmed began the demonstration by disconnecting the rubber hose that fed gasoline into the car's engine and replacing it with a tube connected to his "water kit." The engineer says the kit powers the car through the process of electrolysis, whereby a current from the battery passes through distilled water filled with electrolytes, separating out the hydrogen from the oxygen. The hydrogen, which is combustible, is fed into the engine to power it, he added.
"You will see a revolution in Pakistan if we use this technology," said Ahmed. "Most of our problems are due to shortage of electricity and the increasing energy crisis."
Pakistan suffers from severe electricity shortages, with some parts of the country experiencing blackouts for up to 20 hours per day. There are various reasons for the crisis, but a core problem has been a shortage of fuel oil and natural gas to run power plants. Natural gas is also used to power many cars in Pakistan.
The power shortages regularly spark protests by citizens angry at the country's politicians, many of whom are seen as corrupt, and more concerned with keeping power than solving the country's problems.
One of Ahmed's biggest supporters has been the religious affairs minister, Khurshid Shah, who like him is from southern Sindh province. Shah drove the engineer's car during his demonstration and said he was amazed by the performance of the water kit.
"Personally, I am happy and satisfied, and I hope this technology can help in overcoming the energy problems," said Shah.
He said Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who used to be the minister for water and power, praised the project and directed a subcommittee of the Cabinet to study its feasibility. The prime minister's spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Shaukat Pervez, chairman of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, praised Ahmed and said "this is a feasible project." His counterpart at the Pakistan Science Foundation, also a government body, hailed the engineer's work as "an extraordinary breakthrough" and said it would be examined carefully.
Other scientists were distinctly less impressed with Ahmed's invention.
"In a few short days, he has exposed just how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and self-delusion," prominent Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote in an op-ed in The Express Tribune newspaper on Friday. "No practical joker could have demonstrated more dramatically the true nature of our country's political leaders, popular TV anchors and famed scientists."
Khurshid Hasanain, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, called Ahmed's claim of inventing a water-fuelled car "nonsensical" because there was no net energy gain from the electrolysis process. He said the amount of energy it takes to split the hydrogen in water from the oxygen is the same or more than you get from burning the hydrogen that is produced - according to the basic laws of thermodynamics - so the battery is effectively running the car and will eventually run out.
Many car companies around the world have been experimenting with fuel cells powered by tanks of pure hydrogen to produce vehicles with greater gas mileage and lower emissions than those that use gasoline. But they have struggled with the lack of hydrogen fueling stations and with the fact that hydrogen is expensive to produce.
Hoodbhoy said the water-fuelled car farce had picked up momentum in Pakistan because "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."
At least one person chose to approach the episode with a sense of humor.
"Why are people whining that `laws of thermodynamics cannot be violated?'" tweeted a satirist who goes by the name majorlyprofound.
"Tell me one law in Pakistan that has not been violated?"
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