Wood, Straw, And Coal, The Alternative Alternative Fuels You Never Thought About

In modern automotive jargon, “alternative fuel vehicles” refers either to cars that run on ethanol or electric cars powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or solar panels.

That’s now. Around the Second World War, “alternative fuel vehicle” – if the term’d been invented – likely would’ve meant “wood-gas, straw-gas or coal car.”

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Caught short of petrol due to the war, several European automakers figured out a way to make internal combustion engines run on gas fumes burnt off of wood or coal.

Engineers and tinkerers had been playing with this alternative alternative tech for decades by that time, though, and not just overseas — they’d toyed around with it in Canada, too.

The basic principle behind gasification is simple. Burning carbon-based biomass – anything from straw to switchgrass to wood pellets to paper garbage – at high temperature in a low-oxygen furnace produces gases like hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

When filtered and compressed (“gasified”) these fumes can be pumped directly into an internal combustion engine. Very few modifications are required, and if the gasifier’s been set up properly, there’s little extra maintenance.

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The technology is basically carbon-neutral: water vapour, carbon dioxide and a vaguely barbecue-y smell are the only by-products.

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On the downside, it takes a few minutes for the furnaces to heat up; the gasification equipment weighs a few hundred kilograms; and, oh yeah, wood-gas has a pretty low energy density, so speed and range are severely limited and you’d need a forest to feed a fleet of cars.

For the full history on wood-gas and coal cars, head on over to Autofocus.ca and check out this piece from our archives.

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