Using Radio Waves to Split Water: a discovery almost as interesting as the researcher responsible.
For decades, debates raged over the viability of hydrogen-powered cars. While the dreamers of the world accused scientists and engineers of uncaring complacency, the scientific community responded with calculations regarding the energy required to make hydrogen and oxygen from water.
Then, by an astonishing serendipity, John Kanzius, a broadcast engineer and amateur cancer researcher, discovered that salt water appeared to “burn” when subjected to radio waves. In reality, the radio waves are “splitting” water into its elemental components, hydrogen and oxygen, which then burn, reforming water. While this discovery can’t violate the first law of thermodynamics by creating energy, it can transform radio waves into a combination of heat, light, and mechanical energy. The possibilities are endless.
The most interesting aspect of this discovery is neither the technological implications that will result nor the scientific insights to be gained. More amazing, in my opinion, is the fact that such a fascinating discovery was made by a researcher with unexpected credentials and a deeply personal motivation. John Kanzius earned a technical degree before being employed by RCA. Though he initially planned to earn a college degree in engineering, he managed to convince his employer of his problem solving acumen in a more practical way. When presented with a signal distortion problem that had puzzled engineers for years, he found a cheap solution in less than an hour. The career success that followed was interrupted when Kanzius was diagnosed with cancer.
The same down-to-earth determination that served him so well at RCA helped him to become a self-taught expert in oncology. Putting together his new-found biological expertise with his electrical background, he formulated an idea. He developed a device which he intended as a method of killing cancer cells with radio waves, never dreaming it would accomplish what some physicists refer to as the “holy grail” of energy research, the decomposition of water. The machine is now being researched extensively for both purposes.
Teachers the world over will be wearing smug expressions for years to come, having been given yet another example of how impossible it is to predict what knowledge will open which doors. When will little Sally need algebra? Who knows! But then again, who knew a broadcast engineer studying cell biology would make a major discovery in fuel science? You never know where the tools in your toolbox will take you. The only certainty is that the more you have, the better off you are.
The other truth so well illustrated by the example of John Kanzius is that the knowledge in your head and the determination in your heart, not the diploma on your wall, make you a scholar. Students who obsess over grades and acceptance to schools or programs are missing the point of an education. You don’t have to earn an engineering degree to have a career in electronics, nor is a medical degree required in order to help alleviate human suffering. When someone has a passion for a subject and the motivation to pursue it, he may not be able to move a mountain. But he can burn water, and you must admit, that’s pretty impressive!