People & Society Tapestry

An idea that does not hold water

Published 19 Mar, 2015 03:06pm

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Illustration by Sabir Nazar
Illustration by Sabir Nazar

Throughout the 1980s, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a scientist working at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, conducted government-funded research about how energy could be harnessed from djinns. At the end of his seven-year research, he presented a paper claiming that this was possible “if we develop our souls [and] develop a communication with them [djinns].” Two decades later, the level of scientific ingenuity remains much the same. With the desperation for a cheap source of energy heightening in Pakistan and the government anxious to rid itself of petrol worries and the impending compressed natural gas (CNG) crisis, it seems we are willing to believe in anything, even the existence of miracles.

Some in Pakistan have become devout followers of a police stenographer from Khairpur, Agha Waqar Ahmad, who claims to have invented a kit that enables automobiles to run on distilled water. If the invention’s efficacy can be proven in front of competent authorities, it will be nothing short of the technological equivalent of the Holy Grail. “My job has nothing to do with engineering,” says Ahmad, who has worked with the Khairpur district police department since 1993. His scientific knowledge, he explains, comes from a diploma in mechanical engineering. Ahmad’s water-kit works on the basic principle of electrolysis: an electric charge is passed through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules, and the resulting hydrogen gas is used to fuel the automobile.

In theory, there is nothing amiss; in fact, there are hundreds of ‘inventors’ across the world who have created exactly the same device. The problem, however, lies in sustainability. Energy produced through electrolysis is not efficient, which means that the amount of energy spent in the process of electrolysis is greater than the amount of energy produced. The Western world encountered this problem decades ago, leading to the creation of hydrogen fuel cells and the establishment of hydrogen filling stations.

Ahmad, however, maintains that no one in the world has created a water-kit such as his. “Everyone uses hydrogen gas in automobiles as a ‘side fuel’, but no one has been able to solely employ hydrogen to run a car,” he says. Ahmad has been unable to convince his sceptics. Mohammad Bilal Khan, director of the Centre for Energy Systems at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), says Ahmad’s ‘unique creation’ is a half-baked experiment. “If Agha Waqar is producing the entire quantity of hydrogen gas that is needed to propel the vehicle within the car itself, then the water tank would have to be bigger than the boot of the car,” he argues.

Major General Obaid bin Zakariya, commandant of the College of Electrical & Mechanical Engineering at NUST, has his own suspicions. “I can’t really be sure how Agha Waqar does it; maybe he keeps a large battery hidden somewhere in the car which runs the engine, or perhaps he disconnects the CNG line but keeps the car working on petrol,” suggests Zakariya.

Amer Iqbal, a theoretical physicist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), believes Ahmad’s water-kit is a fraud. After all, this would not be the first scientific fraud in Pakistan. In 2004, Aurangzeb Hafi, a scientist, claimed to have discovered a formula to increase crop yield by tenfold and successfully scammed money from various organisations. While Ahmad denies asking anyone for money, he is still waiting for funds from an unnamed source. “I have not asked anyone for any money – not the government or any private company,” he reiterates, adding cryptically, “I will make the water-kit available in the market in two months; I am just waiting for my funds to arrive; I will receive them soon.”

Ahmad’s ‘invention’ has more supporters than critics and he cites this as proof of his kit’s authenticity. “Out of a population of 180 million, if a handful disparages my invention, it does not dishearten me,” he says. Among those supporting him is Dr Samar Mubarakmand, a nuclear scientist who is carrying out a project to produce natural gas from Thar coal and is a member (on science and technology) of the Planning Commission of Pakistan. Mubarakmand has commended Ahmad for his discovery, saying it will save Pakistan millions of dollars in oil imports.

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, a metallurgist and the ‘inventor’ of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, is another enthusiast, appearing on news channels to congratulate Ahmad and express his faith in an invention he has never seen, much less examined. The Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR), the highest government research organisation in scientific fields, has also been dishing out praise for the ‘inventor’ from Khairpur, with Shoukat Pervez, the PCSIR chairman, appearing on national television to voice his support for Ahmad.

The last time the government supported a similar ‘miracle’ was in 1968 when Zohra Fona, an Indonesian woman, was invited to Pakistan on an official visit, as she claimed that the child in her womb could recite the Quran out loud. She met the then-president General Muhammad Ayub Khan and was asked to lead men’s prayers. Pakistani scientists back in the 1960s stepped up, unravelled the mystery and declared Fona to be a fraud. However, in the case of the water-kit, many government scientists see it as a potentially ground-breaking discovery. “We are very excited and hopeful,” says Professor Mudassar Israr, the chairperson of the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology. “Even though we think it is against the law of thermodynamics, we are still checking its practical application,” she says.

Ahmad is also enjoying the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF). “The theoretical background of the project will have to be examined, but there is no doubt that Agha Waqar has used a different geometry and created something unique,” says Masroor Ahmad, the joint technological adviser of the ministry. His department was scheduled to test the kit on August 15th but this was delayed as Ahmad needed more time to “convert his model from a rough form to a fair form.” But even before the test is conducted and its results are known, the PSF seems to have placed its trust in the kit. “Didn’t we all see it [the water-kit] working on television?” asks Mirza Habib, the principal scientific officer at the foundation.

Ahmad’s detractors point out that the problem does not lie in his flawed invention, but in its marketing — if a car is said to be running on water, why wouldn’t it appeal the public imagination? Despite the fact that the fuel being used by the car is hydrogen gas, not water, the catchy slogan of a ‘car running on water’ persists. Some believe that the government, desperately hoping to divert attention from its failure to address the energy crisis, is behind Ahmad’s promotion as a public hero. A more simple explanation may be that the people who initially examined the water-kit were either incompetent or lacking a solid scientific background. And as the idea has gained popularity, renowned scientists such as Mubarakmand and A Q Khan did not seem to have the courage to call a spade a spade.

Popular hankering after cheap and abundant energy is understandable. But there are no magic formulae for this, nor are there any short-cuts. Instead of chasing fancy fuels that don’t exist, the government should invest in developing technology to exploit resources that are already known. “Solar and wind energies are good options,” says Ali Kabeer, the general manager of Renu, a private organisation which specialises in research about energy diversity. But the technology required to reap benefits from such alternate energy sources is close to non-existent in Pakistan. “Right now there is only one company in the country which locally manufactures solar cells,” he says.

Bilal Khan describes alternative energy as “next generation energy” and argues that this is where our focus should be. But he warns that the path to alternative energy is long and needs large investments in its initial stages. It will take many years before Pakistan can solve its energy problem, he says. Bilal Khan’s personal favourite alternative fuel is bio-diesel extracted from the Jatropha plant. “The world uses 20 billion litres of biofuel in a year; this must be a useful and economically viable fuel then,” he argues and adds that NUST has acquired 5,000 acres of land for Jatropha plantation.

Zakariya, however, does not see bio-diesel as sustainable because Jatropha plantation will take place at the cost of cultivating food crops; while this may bring the price of fuel down, it will certainly increase the price of food. Zakariya believes water energy is the most sustainable choice, explaining how in 2001, NUST installed a number of solar-water pumps which are proving to be highly-efficient sources of energy. The pumps use energy derived from solar panels to pump water which in turn moves a turbine and generates electricty. “We have so many model projects that have been tried and tested, we just need government help in the form of incentives and subsidies and we can make these forms of energy available to industries,” says Zakariya.

The problem with such solutions is that they are not quick fixes and need considerable financial backing. In the 2000s, seeking a similar quick fix, Pakistan’s government allowed the rapid sprouting of CNG stations across the country. It did not occur to the policymakers at the time that gas reserves may one day run out, leaving consumers and station-owners of CNG high and dry.

If past miracles are anything to go by, the water-kit and Ahmad will soon fade away until the next great miracle is discovered. The real solution to our energy crisis lies in something that is scientifically sound and technologically viable, regardless of the time and money spent on putting it together.