Alternatives to oil

July 20, 2008

The wind generator overlooking Rideau Lumber in Smiths Falls waves to me each morning as I turn left at the stop sign. It’s a very nice-looking piece of equipment, and would likely make a fine toy. This week I asked about it and received a brochure. Then I noticed a console on the wall in the office. “Does that meter show the generator’s output? Could I please look?” The girl at the counter let me pass, and I sneaked in to satisfy my curiosity. There the readout blinked: 137 watts.

This was in a gentle breeze. The blades were spinning quickly enough that they were a blur, but not invisible. 137 watts. 1 1/3 shop-sized light bulbs. Enough to run this computer and leave a little for a reading light. Of course if I used the new bulbs I could run ten of them at that rate, or charge up the batteries on an electric golf cart. For $15,000. Hmmm.

Anyone can tell you there’s a great deal of power in the sun. My mother has that nailed with a very simple solar collector for water. She runs a hose from the well into a 250 gallon plastic tank, allows the water to warm up, then siphons it down to her flowers. The energy gain on a summer day is quite amazing.

Solar collectors on a roof can be a real back-breaker in winter, though. Seems a snow-covered panel on a roof doesn’t collect any energy, and a trip up to clean the thing off can prove downright dangerous.

This week I happened upon a Swedish manual for adapting engines to wood gas. Most non-military vehicles which saw use in Europe during WWII used wood gas as fuel. The Swedes have kept working on this technology ever since, as they have lots of wood and no secure oil reserves. The online manual explains the case for wood gasification: wood gases, properly extracted, produce quite a bit of power, and the process doesn’t deprive anyone of food. Wood gas can be readily fed into the carburetor of a gasoline engine, and even alternated with diesel in bi-fuel applications. The fuel cost savings are phenomenal.

The downside is a steep learning curve, potential catastrophic explosions, long setup times, short engine life, poisonous gas production, tar and ash buildup, heavy labour, constantly dirty working conditions, and the difficulty of transporting a supply of firewood in or on one’s vehicle or implement. The furnace to produce the wood gas is not small or light, either, effectively ruling out golf cart applications.

What stopped me was the budget for the project. When done by a government, it cost about $11,000 to convert a mid-sized tractor or heavy truck to wood fuel.

I wondered what a hobbyist could do with scrap materials and duct tape, though, so I looked up wood-gas engines on YouTube. The ensuing afternoon of viewing went quickly. What struck me about the films was how well the guys worked together, and how happy they were in making anew something that had worked out of necessity a generation before.

They were having so much fun I immediately wanted to join the crews. These guys are the sorts who get a kick out of drilling a 1 ½” hole into the side of a Ford two-barrrel carburetor so that they can fit a new tube into it. It worked, too. The camera car couldn’t keep up with the modified pickup during a demonstration on public roads.

Then there were the four guys in the old Volvo who towed a trailer loaded with their bags of wood blocks through their test cycles. They did some impressive plumbing and sheet-metal work on that car.

One guy methodically explained how his 8 hp engine can run an automotive alternator to charge a battery and then produce usable household electricity through an inverter. He had the engine running like a top, though at one point in the startup process he used his hand as a carburetor to control the gas flow.

Producer gas is basically the mixture of methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen which is produced from the heating of wood. It needs to be filtered before it gets to the engine, else the tar and water vapour buildup will shorten the engine’s life. The engineering of the filters seems to get the most You-Tube attention.

One of the films showed a series of photos of 1940’s producer-gas powered cars. Most furnaces were installed where the trunk used to be. Some had the furnace and condenser neatly fitted into the coachwork. The most interesting shot was undoubtedly the one of the elegantly-attired young woman standing on a rear fender of a fine automobile, reaching down into the firebox with a poker.

At first I thought the idea of powering an engine with wood was ridiculous, but after watching the YouTube films, I think I might like to try it. My wife is not keen on this idea.

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