There’s a popular myth about technology – that it keeps moving forward, getting better, faster, stronger without ever looking back. That might be true for the latest iPod, laptop, or dishwasher, but over the last five years technological innovation hasn’t met the demand for alternative, affordable fuels, leading more and more enterprising folks to look backward. The technological “advance” we call biodiesel is actually as old as the diesel engine itself. Now, with gas prices setting almost daily records, and predictions of $15 a gallon garnering air time on cable news networks, backyard tinkerers are looking back again, this time to war-era Europe.

Poking around online, Robert “Chip” Beam found that severe rationing of oil during World War II led European farmers to strap wood-burning chambers onto the back of their equipment. “They had run 90 percent of their farm equipment on charcoal at the time,” he says.

Beam saw potential in the old technology to fight back against global warming and high gas prices without sacrificing food for fuel. “I found out that you can use anything organic that can be made into a pellet, like grasses, wild flowers, goldenrod,” he says. “[It] can be easily converted from a solid to a vapor fuel without having to use extra energy to refine or distill it.”

So the full-time CAD designer at a Pennsylvania architectural design firm went to work on his old Isuzu Trooper. The system is surprisingly simple: No moving parts, no engine modifications, just a big metal-shielded heat chamber mounted on the truck bed with a pipe running directly into the engine’s air cleaner. Strike a match to light the organic material in the bottom of the heat chamber while a small, battery-powered blower creates the suction necessary to begin the process of turning the organic matter (usually some form of wood chips) into vapor fuel. Then, once the engine is started, it draws the fuel in via the air cleaner and takes over for the blower, keeping the entire system running as long as there’s fuel in the gravity-fed burner.

There are a few drawbacks to being able to drive on just about any organic material you can pick up on the side of the road. First, Beam says performance is decreased by about 50 percent due to the introduction of non-flammable nitrogen gas into the system; so an engine designed for a top speed of 120 mph might top out at 60 mph. Second, burning wood rather than gasoline is a little less efficient in terms of miles per pound. Beam’s model goes about a mile per pound of wood, which is roughly equivalent, in terms of fuel weight, to a car that gets 6 miles per gallon of gas. Third, and most important, according to Bob Wallace with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is that the market for these wood-gas cars is “niche at best.”

“When you think about mass-producing automobiles, how many places in the country are you going to be able to run off of wood chips?” Wallace says. “And unless you turn all the organic material into hydrogen and carbon, you’re just going to be putting a lot of ash out as waste and that’s certainly not any better than any environmental waste that’s coming out of an automobile now.”

But that’s not how Beam sees things — he points to the fact that wood gas is carbon-neutral because the organic material burned would have rotted, releasing carbon dioxide anyway. Furthermore, he says his emissions are free from the sulfurs found in regular gas exhaust.

Still, Beam concedes there are some pretty high regulatory hurdles to overcome before mass production, or even small-scale production, of wood-burning car models could happen. “I’m sure actually developing one we could sell that actually says ‘this is for your car’ would be difficult because of all the hoops you’d have to jump through.”

Despite the obstacles, Beam and his wood-burning Isuzu Trooper aren’t an isolated automotive novelty. Plug the search term “wood gas” into YouTube or Google, and you’ll see video or photos of dozens more similar projects from around the world, from the Café Racer — a car that runs on coffee grounds that was a hit at Burning Man last year — to a wood-burning old Yugo hatchback in Serbia.

And at least one major institution in North America is taking a serious look at charcoal as a means of directly producing electricity. The University of Hawaii’s Natural Energy Institute announced in 2006 that it had developed a charcoal-based fuel cell with nearly 100 percent efficiency. Researcher Michael Antal developed the process, and he told the Honolulu Advertiser that it still needs to be fine-tuned, but makes more sense than the often-hailed hydrogen fuel-cell, which often need to be manufactured using fossil fuels.

The excitement around organic fuels led Beam in 2006 to found a new company, Beaver Energy, with the goal of offering low-cost burners like the one in his Isuzu trooper that can be used to run farm equipment, electrical generators, home heating in the case of shortage, or for recreational uses like hot tubs, or yes, maybe even that old F-150 — just don’t tell the DMV.

“It’s possible we could have something available to the public on sort of an experimental scale within the next 4 to 5 months,” says Beam.

With oil prices expected to top $150 a barrel by the end of the year, odds are more than a handful of customers will be waiting and ready with barrels of their own – filled with recently pruned branches, and the promise that this year’s Christmas tree might be recycled into the first tank of the New Year.

Story by Eric Mack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Biofuels: Out of the forest and into your gas tank
Innovators are building cars fueled by wood chips.