From electric automobiles to solar wheels, hybrid cars are the wave of the future. But what about a truck that runs on the energy of the past?
An unconventional doctoral student is determined to make the original renewable fuel an efficient, economical and environmentally-friendly source of power for 21st century vehicles.
From movie fiction to reality
Rick Bates still remembers a war movie he saw as a child in which wood power saves the day.
"The hero in the movie escaped from invading Japanese forces by putting a wood-gas powered engine in a school bus and escaping with a busload of orphans in a bus powered by coconut shells," he says.
Bates always wondered if he could turn the stuff of movies into reality, but never did anything about it until he lost his job. That's when he enrolled in a doctoral program in bioprocess engineering at State University of New York in Syracuse. He wanted to see if he could make a truck run on wood.
As it turns out, the coconut-powered bus was not so far fetched.
"It was used widely in Europe during and before World War ll, and after World War lI in Germany and France because there was no fuel," says Professor Klaus Doelle, Bates faculty advisor. "It's actually an old technology which I would say (has) gotten kind of forgotten."
The technology is called wood-gasification.
Wood heated at high temperatures with minimal oxygen cannot burn completely. Instead, it creates gases that can be used to power generators or internal combustion engines.
Bates modified his 1969 GMC truck to gasify wood. He mounted a specialized wood burning stove in the bed and connected it to the engine through a series of intricately coiled pipes and tubes. Dry, finely chopped pieces of wood are added to the hopper and the stove is fired up.
"After the fire got established, you would start the truck on gasoline and within half a mile or so you would switch it over to wood-gas," he says.
It is not as efficient as a gasoline-powered vehicle, and does not have the power, but Bates and Doelle say it has other advantages. An 18-kilogram bag of wood chips can be purchased for about $3 and is good for 52 kilometers. They say it is less expensive than gasoline, and more environmentally friendly.
"You can grow a tree in 30 years, versus your fossil fuel which takes two-or-three hundred, million years to form the carbon fuel," says Bates.
Doelle adds, "It would be basically carbon neutral because the trees have taken up the carbon from the air and basically we burn it and release the carbon again, so it would be a carbon neutral process."
Other renewable energy sources
Trees are just the beginning. Bates hopes to someday convert farm waste such as corn stalks, wheat shafts and even manure into renewable energy for vehicles.
"I think it would be impractical to expect to power a very large percentage of engines and applications that presently use petroleum on wood. If you try to, you would exhaust all your wood," he says. "But for areas of the country or the world that have a surplus of woody type fuel, wood-gas offers a good alternative to petroleum."
According to Bates, the wood-gas system can be hooked up to a car, or even motorcycle, connected to a trailer, and could work especially in the developing world and rural areas.
Doelle envisions an even more innovative application for the system.
"Imagine a garbage truck running on wood-gas that's produced by the garbage the truck collects," he says.
Bates and Doelle still have several more tests to run before the system is ready to hit the road. But when it does, they plan to show that the stuff of movies is not always just a fantasy.