The Future = Cars That Run on Trees?

photo of volvo 240 that runs on wood gas

The 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit showed off plenty of electric vehicles to the public. Battery technology is big. The promise of electric transportation seems strong. But what about good ol' wood-burning cars? They run on trees, of course, and some argue that they could give electric cars a run for their money.These vehicles don't require you to carry a chainsaw and make stumps every 100 or so miles. They can run on waste wood, or any biomass, for that matter. It usually isn't too hard to find firewood for sale (depending on where you live, of course). The emissions aren't half bad either, proponents say, considering that much electricity in the United States comes from coal and nuclear power.

Just where does this wild idea come from? Well, the past. During World War II, almost every motorized vehicle in continental Europe was converted to use firewood, notes a post at Low-Tech Magazine.

The mag says rising fuel prices and global warming have caused renewed interest in the old technology, and dozens of home-made woodmobiles are on the roads of the world. Hardly a revolution, but something to consider as an alternative to cars to run on dinosaur juice or rely on batteries?

The Swedish government, and Volvo, have been working on more updated versions of the technology. A number of vehicles profiled by Low-Tech Magazine involve pulling trailers behind your ride, which makes it pretty hard to park (and must not be too good on mileage, either).

A guy known as Dutch John converted a Volvo 240 to run on wood in 2009, which has a max speed of 68 mph. It gets about 1 mile per pound of wood, and has a "fuel tank" that can carry 66 pounds. Sounds comparable to some electric cars.

"Despite its industrial appearance, a wood gas car scores rather well from an ecological viewpoint when compared to other alternative fuels," the mag says.

"Wood gasification is slightly more effiicient than wood burning, as only 25 percent of the energy content of the fuel is lost. The energy consumption of a woodmobile is around 1.5 times higher than the energy consumption of a similar car powered by gasoline (including the energy lost during the pre-heating of the system and the extra weight of the machinery). If the energy required to mine, transport and refine oil is also taken into account, however, then wood gas is at least as efficient as gasoline. And, of course, wood is a renewable fuel. Gasoline is not."


The mag goes on to acknowledge that wood gas cars aren't a solution, but pretty darn intriguing just the same.

"Unfortunately, wood gas shares an important disadvantage with other biofuels. Mass producing woodmobiles would not solve this. Quite the contrary, in fact: if we were to convert every vehicle, or even just a significant number, to wood gas, all the trees in the world would be gone and we would die of hunger because all agricultural land would be sacrificed for energy crops. Indeed, the woodmobile caused severe deforestation in France during the Second World War. Just as with many other biofuels, the technology is not scalable."

For his part, Dutch John argues in favor of wood as a fuel of the future.

"I consider wood as a battery for solar energy. The tree uses carbon dioxide and water to grow, and in this way it "charges" its battery from the sun. However, merciless sceptics will tear me down on the low efficiency fact and in that sense they are right. What the sceptics do not take into account is that manufacturing and recycling an ordinary battery costs energy, precious raw materials and it cannot be made locally. An ordinary battery discharges itself after time and thus shortens its life span. Wood has none of these disadvantages, but has the advantages of providing shade, food, oxygen, building materials, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and then still it can serve as a fuel."

Via: Low-Tech Magazine.

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