by John Rockhold
September 16, 2011 | MOTHER EARTH NEWS
Back in June — wow, how time flies, and wow, how I am overdue to write this up — I had the pleasure of attending a gathering of wood gas gurus.
You may be wondering: What is wood gas, who are these gurus, and what do they do?
Well, basically, they use wood chips to power their trucks instead of gasoline.
This is wood gasification, the process of burning wood chips (or pretty much any other biomass material) in a high-temperature, oxygen-restricted environment — such as a gasifier placed in a truck bed — that creates hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases. Those gases are flammable and can then be burned just like gasoline vapors are burned to power an engine which then propels a vehicle.
While the idea of burning wood to power a truck may sound zany, it’s actually a proven option. Wood gas vehicles subbed for gasoline vehicles overseas during World War II — when the military got dibs on gasoline. Also, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been experimenting with wood gasification since the late 1970s. (See the 1981 article Wood Gas! Wood Gasification Powers This Truck. Our predecessors at the magazine even developed a wood gas generator plan.) And there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of wood gas aficionados across the country who engage online in groups such as the Wood Gas Yahoo group and WoodGas.net.
For some perspective on wood chips versus gasoline, it takes about 16 pounds of wood to equal the power output of a gallon of gasoline. And 1 cord of wood (basically, a cord is enough wood to make a pile 4-feet deep by 4-feet high by 8-feet long) can power a medium-sized truck for more than 5,000 miles.
Wayne Keith, who could be nicknamed Mr. Wood Gas as far as I’m concerned, explains wood gas better than I can in this video:
I spent time with Wayne Keith, Mike LaRosa (who is famous within wood gas circles for the “LaRosifier,” or the poor man’s gasifier as he described it to me) and several other wood gas gurus on that warm, windy June day in the very southeastern corner of Kansas. I learned a ton about the different options for converting trucks to chuck wood. Notably, I experienced that wood gas trucks can drive just as smooth and fast, if not smoother and faster, than gasoline-powered trucks. You can see Keith top 70+ mph in this video:
In this video, we hit 84 mph before we had to slow down for a car in front of us (ironically, a Toyota Prius):
Wood gas trucks also are plenty powerful. Keith has multiple wood gas trucks, including a heavy-duty Ford that he uses for hauling hay. You can see wood gas farming in action on the farm for yourself here:
In short, if you've ever known a humble but proud farmer with mechanical aptitude and natural (maybe endless) curiosity, you've got an idea of what Wayne Keith is like. He reminds me of the grandfathers I have had in my life. That’s not a reflection of his age, but rather of his entrepreneurial, hands-on, and inventive spirit. His passion for using the renewable energy of wood gas instead of gasoline is only matched by his drive and aptitude to improve his gasification system. I’m no expert on wood gas, but I’ll bet you a cord of wood that Keith has advanced this technology in monumental way. Over the last six years and nearly 200,000 miles of driving, Keith has used barely any gasoline. And now Wayne has raised the bar even higher, setting a new record for land speed on wood gas. Look for more details soon (and video!) on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS website, but for now read Springville, Alabama Inventor Breaks Record With His Wood-Burning Pickup from the Birmingham News of Alabama.
Every day, Keith proves that wood gas can be a practical, renewable and sustainable transportation solution. Certainly not for everybody, but certainly for anyone with moderate welding skills, a sustainable source of wood or other type of biomass, and a sawmill or access to a sawmill. By no means do I think we’ll ever see wood gas vehicles in car dealer lots nationwide. But I think there are many, many MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers who fit the previous description, just for starters.
Here are more clips from the afternoon I spent with Wayne Keith, all rolled into one video.