"Catalytic" water treatment

junk science in the marketplace

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Magnetic water treatment, as discussed in the MagScams page, has been around for some time. Beginning in the 1990s, a number of water treatment promoters claimed to use a "catalyst" of some kind to "soften" water or at least to prevent scale formation. In many of these instances, the use of the term "catalytic" has less to do with catalysts than with giving what amounts to "magic" a scientific-sounding cloak.

Catalysts cannot soften water

Anyone who has passed first-year Chemistry should know that a catalyst can only influence the rate of a reaction, not its final outcome, which depends entirely on thermodynamics. Many groundwaters are supersaturated in hardness ions, and it is conceivable that a suitable catalyst could cause this excess material to precipitate out. But even if the solid carbonates were filtered out, the remaining water would be saturated and capable of forming scale on heat exchanger surfaces and leaving evaporative deposits in teakettles and on surfaces. It would also react with soaps to produce scums in laundry and bathtubs.

"Precious metal" catalyst bunk

A number of devices that depend on the purported catalytic properties of certain alloys of "precious and semi-precious metals" are on the market. These are supposed to work on the principle that certain metal catalysts are able to inject electrons into the water, thus neutralizing hardness ions such as Ca2+ and Mg2+. Other sites on the catalyst supposedly remove electrons from the bicarbonate ions. From the standpoint of chemistry, the idea that "hardness" ions can be neutralized in this way is ludicrous; any metal that is sufficiently electropositive to do this would also decompose the water itself! Hardness-ion precipitation does not involve electron transfer in any way.

Not surprisingly, I have been unable to find any evidence in the reputable technical literature that these devices can soften water. The number of companies offering "catalytic" water conditioners seems to have declined recently; some remaining ones are EWS, StWS, and SaWS. One previously well-known site promoted their device for agricultural operations as well as for ordinary water treatment; what is presumably the same product is available and its "working principle" is illustrated here. Another company hits both the water- and fuel-treatment markets:

The electronegativity of the core alloy is less than the overall electronegativity of the water solution. Therefore, the core loses (gives up) more electrons than it acquires to elements such as Hydrogen (H?) ions which have an electronegativity of 2.1 and ionic compounds (radicals) such as SO?²?, and CO?²? which have higher electronegativities than the core alloy. [link]

As the fuel passes over the catalyst, the larger aggregates of hydrocarbon fuels are broken down into smaller colloidal units. .. The catalytic reaction caused by the patented alloy in the Panther Fuel Stabilizer prevents covalent bonding ( or sharing of valence fields) of the fuel molecules which keeps the hydrocarbon aggregates in fine colloidal suspensions. [link]

Although this stuff may sound "scientific" to some, even a first-year Chemistry student should recognize the gross misuse of the term "electronegativity" in the first example. There is of course no scientific basis for any of these statements, and no credible performance data is offered.

Some of "catalytic filters" that uiilize zinc-copper alloy are also supposed to remove chlorine. This is theoretically possible, but I have not been able to find any credible evidence that this actually works.. Activated carbon filters have been shown to be effective in this application, and, more importantly, they can remove organic byproducts of chlorine treatment.

Dubious agricultural applications

Several makers of the "catalytic" devices aim their marketing at the agricultural industry, implying [without any supporting evidence) that they can improve the ability of water to permeate soils and be taken up by plants.

The new Hydrochanger H2O water conditioner will break up hardpan soils, reduce run off and water usage,reduce the need for gypsum, sulfur burners and fertilizers, and allow plants to thrive in saltier environments. [link]

The surface tension of pure water is due to attractions between water molecules ("hydrogen bonding") which is also the cause of water's anomalously high boiling point; in its absence, water would be a gas at room temperature, so any claim that surface tension is "eliminated" is clearly nonsense. But more importantly, there is no evidence that it can even be reduced by any kind of "catalyst".

Template-assisted  and epitaxial crystallization

If a true catalytic scale-precipitation process exists, it would probably fall into these categories. A number of devices claim to work by providing a special surface on which carbonate scale preferentially deposits. This process is known as epitaxial crystallization, and is widely used in the semiconductor industry but has never been reported for aqueous solutions — and thus, as a means of scale control.

The term template-assisted crystallization (TAC) would at first sight appear to be a synonym for this process, but promoters of water treatment devices that are described as employing TAC assert that this is not the case.  TAC media consist of polymer beads whose surfaces have been chemically treated in such a way that the resulting cavities, presumably owing to their carefully-controlled size, provide sites in which accumulation of Ca2+ and HCO32– ions and subsequent formation of CaCO3 (a process that chemists call nucleation) is energetically more favorable than nucleation that takes place within the water itself — a process that is known to procede with difficulty, thus allowing scale to form on metallic surfaces.

Although the efficacy and limitations of TAC have not yet been reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, there is some evidence that this methodology just might work:

A major limitation of any process that precipitates carbonate solids within the water is that the water must be supersaturated in calcium or magnesium carbonate, and even then it would be expected to only reduce the carbonate concentrations to saturation levels. It can do nothing to prevent scale deposition at higher-temperature surfaces where the carbonates will be less soluble, nor can it remove the hardness ions down to a level at which they will not form scums with soap or leave deposits on evaporatio

One manufacturer (Pelican's NaturSoft device) admits this. Most of the others seem to hide it.

A product known as ScaleStop claims their TAC device can treat (1300 ppm CaCO3) and limits on interfering elements.  (This kind of information is almost unheard of in the alternative water treatment industry.)

The Watts OneFlow device apparently employs the ScaleStop technology, which Watts refers to as "Scale Net". Unfortunately, they invoke some bad chemistry and make some highly dubious claims:

The audio commentary on the Watts site says that the "soft scale microcrystals" that form will sweep through the plumbing system and [magically] brush away existing scale.

The Scale Net media has all the scale prevention advantages of an ion exchanger, for example the amount of soap and detergents needed is smaller. There are no more spots on dishes, bathroom tiles, etc. The Scale Net reliably transforms the calcium ions into calcium bonds. These bonds are stable and cannot attach to surfaces, hardware, etc. The crystals are rinsed away by the water flow. The size
of the bonds is so small that they can only be seen with a microscope. Therefore the effect is the same as if the water was completely free of calcium. [link]

Some test results on the OneFlow device are available that do show greatly reduced scale formation in a standardized test rig, but they don't address use in actual working installations.

GreenWaveWater offers a technology which goes by the ponderous name "Matrix Enabled Particularization", which appears to be basically the same kind of thing.


Some typical misleading "catalytic" claims

Below you can see some of the crackpot chemistry that has been cited by various catalytic device vendors. The left column of the following table quotes paragraphs from the Web sites of various vendors of these products.

 The hype

 The science

"The potable water supplied to us is basically electron-deficient and not in optimum states of equilibrium."

 Utter nonsense. Water and aqueous solutions are always electrically neutral. The term "optimum states of equilibrium" is a meaningless creation of this hypemeister!

"The [product] (through a process which is patent pending) uses several different types of metals housed in a water cannister to draw in extra electrons from a ground for water passing through the water housing. Through a process known as "ionic conversion", calcium and other hardness agents in their ionic form are nuetralized into stable molecules."

 How a metal or other solid can "draw in electrons" is a mystery! Metals tend to lose electrons rather than gain them; this is the major source of metallic corrosion. As for "ionic conversion" (a term unknown to chemists), the ions are already the most stable forms; that's why they are in solution in the first place!

"The conditioner core contains thousands of cathodes which supply electrons to positively charged ions in the water (such as H+) but also contains thousands of anodes that remove electrons from negative ions such as Cl-, allowing them to gather together as neutral gases such as Cl2."

 Any metal above hydrogen in the activity series can reduce H+ as described, but at the cost of corroding the metal and introducing M2+ ions into the solution. But what's the point of destroying hydrogen ions? This would raise the pH and enhance scale formation! Also, who wants to get gassed by poisonous Cl2? But not to worry: no metal known to Chemistry is able to remove electrons from negative ions.

 "The catalytic alloy conditioner core contains elements which have higher oxidation potentials than ions in the water solution. As the water flows through the catalytic alloy coditioner, some of the electrons drawn into the solution displace some already captured by ions such as CO32-, HCO2-, SO42-, and OCI- during the turbulent orbitings of the various electrons."


"This allows the "displaced" electrons to become "free electrons" in the solution and these "free electrons" can be captured by ions or colloids with lesser electronegativities such as Ca2+ and Mg2+ to free themselves of CO32-, SO42-, and HCO3-, and assume their neutral atomic structures (Ca and Mg) and break away from their ionic bonds while in solution or from lattice scale bonds in cases where they arc in solid precipitated or scale form."

 1) "Free electrons" cannot exist in aqueous solution.

2_None of the "hardness" ions such as Ca2+, Mg2+, HCO3-, etc. is capable of being neutralized (reduced or oxidized) in aqueous solution. The reason is that H2O itself is more readily oxidized or reduced. Only a small number of metals, such as sodium, are able to reduce Ca2+ and Mg2+ anyway; anyone who knows what happens when you put Na in water can see why this cannot possibly work!

3) Even if these "neutral atomic structures" like Ca0 and Mg0 could be formed, they would react immediately with water, yielding the original ions Ca2+ and Mg2+.

"Increased egg production - chickens lay two eggs daily instead of one."

This is a curious result in light of the fact that egg shells are made of CaCO3 whose very components are supposedly being removed from the water! It would be interesting to know how many hens were studied, and how many sets of non-conforming results were thrown away.

The increased electron count in the water also inhibits the breakdown of the bicarbonate ion into H+ and CO32-

 The conversion between these various carbonate species depends solely on the pH and does not involve gain or loss of electrons.

"The turbulence of water flowing through this non-ferrous core element strips away adhesive compounds clinging to the minerals and causes the molecular structure of the water to be rearranged, while natural minerals are retained. The ChemFree process of conditioning water uses three electromechanical scientific principles: expitaxial nucleation, controlled oxidation and reduction, and harmonics."

 1) "Adhesive compounds" cling to solid surfaces, not to dissolved minerals. And what prevents these mysterious adhesives from clogging up the filter?

2) The water structure rearranges itself all the time through random thermal motions, and on a time scale far shorter than that required to pass through the alloy area.

3) Harmonics? (A new scientific principle?)

"The additional negative charges in the solution reduce the bonding of the oxygen atoms of H2O molecules and the hydrogen atoms of other H2O molecules (i.e., hydrogen atoms other than those in their own molecules) by supplying the negative charges (electrons) that the oxygen atoms attract. As a result, there are less hydrogen bonds between the individual H2O molecules. This results in "wetter water," which in turn results in better cleaning water and better soil-leaching water."

 This is similar to the arguments given by the magnetic laundry ring shysters, and like it is errant nonsense. Any electrons introduced into water would immediately decompose it; the remaining H2O molecules would be just as fully hydrogen-bonded as before.

"The ... Water Conditioner decreases the dissociation of HOCl ... by providing additional electrons to the water solution which has the net effect of inhibiting the rise in the phi of swimming pool water."

Dissociation of HOCl (used as a disinfectant in swimming pools) has nothing to do with electrons; the fraction dissociated depends solely on the pH of the water.

"The ability of the ChemFree Water Conditioner to reduce the gaseous content of the water solution probably also contributes to inhibition of algae growth. Algae requires nitrogen as well as phosphorous and sunlight for growth. By reducing the nitrogen content of the water, the ChemFree Water Conditioner reduces the nutrient supply of algae."

 There is no known mechanism by which an alloy can reduce the concentration of nitrogen or other atmospheric gases in water. Further, few if any algae are able to utilize nitrogen gas; they derive their nitrogen from ammonium or nitrate ions which are commonly present in natural waters.

"Corrosion is inhibited if the iron is made more negative compared to its surroundings, forcing the anode areas to act as cathodes. This is accomplished by the attraction of some of the extra electrons in the water solution (supplied by the ... Water Conditioner) onto the anodic areas, thereby preventing the ionization of the Fe atoms."

 The first sentence describes cathodic corrosion protection, a widely used technique. The metallic "anode" that supplies the electrons does so in the process of undergoing corrosion itself. And come to think of it, what prevents the electrons from traveling directly from the cathodic to the anodic regions of the catalytic alloy without even entering the solution, which they cannot do anyway?

"The turbulence resulting from the water rushing through the ChemFree Water Conditioner core facilitates the removal of gases by increasing the probabilities of gaseous elements such as Cl and N contacting other like elements and forming Cl2 gas and N2 gas, respectively."

 Assuming that the symbols Cl and N denote atomic chlorine and nitrogen (which cannot have more than transient existence even if sufficient energy were present to produce them, which is certainly not the case under the conditions described), turbulence would likely increase the rate of contact. However, there is no known mechanism by which atomic N can form in water. Cl atoms can be formed by the action of sunlight on chlorinated water, but these extremely reactive species would have only a transient existence because they would react with water before encountering each other.

"All other things being equal, the decrease in surface tension due to the decrease in hydrogen bonding of the water molecules reduces the boiling point of water. However, microwave oven tests conducted on equal amounts of conditioned and unconditioned water sometimes show that the boiling point of the conditioned water sample is higher than that of the unconditioned water sample. This apparent paradox can be explained when it is remembered that the gaseous content of the conditioned water is reduced by the ChemFree Water Conditioner. This can result in an increase in the molecular weight of the water for the given volume."

 1) If hydrogen bonding could be reduced, the surface tension and boiling point would decrease, but there is no evidence that these devices have any effect on hydrogen bonding, nor is there any conceivable mechanism by which they could.

2) Ordinary gases are so slightly soluble in water that they are unlikely to depress the boiling point by more than about 0.001°, which would likely be unobservable in a microwave oven for numerous reasons.

3) The molecular weight of water is a constant that depends only on its elemental and isotopic composition.

"The ... System significantly reduces chlorine by converting it to a natural mineral known as Zinc Chloride. This conversion occurs through the process of "flash chlorination". Incoming water flows through the filtration bed of KDF and causes an ionic reaction to occur. This ionic effect causes the chlorine to convert to a harmless mineral (Zinc Chloride). This small ionic action also causes a process to occur known as redox shock". In this process, a very small electrical charge is created which serves as a bacteriostatic effect inside of the filter. This tiny electrical charge effectively serves to inhibit the growth of bacteria within the KDF filtration bed."

Supposedly, metallic zinc is the reducing agent here. In theory, almost any metal can reduce chlorine, but this is a slow reaction that I would not expect to have any significant effect in a flow-through system at ppm concentrations.

Sterilization by electrocution is a new twist, but the only "redox shock" I have ever heard of is when my students find themselves unable to balance a redox equation on a midterm exam!

In operation, scale particles tend to 'lattice' together due to their sharp, protruding crystalline structure. One of the operational principles of the [device] is a surface chemical reaction between the crystalline structures, which exist in the water, and the metal alloy within the Turbu-Flow. The sharp crystalline structures, after passing over the first element or 'fence' start to be broken down into a series of thread-like colloids

There is no reason to believe that scale particles can be "broken down" by interacting with a metal surface, and I am not aware of any evidence for the existence of "thread-like colloids" of carbonate solids.

"The ...cell acts as a catalyst on the water. The bonds of the H2O molecules are broken. Foreign particles entrapped by the water molecules become exposed to the open solution. Their surfaces become available as nucleation points for the nearby CaCO3 molecules"

There is no way that a catalyst (even one with a high-tech-sounding name ending in -tron) can break the very strong O­H bonds in water in the absence of an abundant source of energy. And if this were possible, why peddle water softeners when the inventor could earn billions by using the same process to substitute water for gasoline as an automotive fuel?

So, what to make of all this? These statements are reminiscent of what I often see on exams written by first-year Chemistry students who have devoted more time to partying than studying. (Now I think I know what some of these people do for a living after they drop out of college!) The fact that this is mostly nonsense does not in itself prove that the products don't work, but it should inspire a healthy degree of skepticism. There is simply no credible mechanism known to science that can explain the claimed results, none of which have been scientifically validated anyway. Caveat emptor!