I keep having nightmares about one possible future: biofuel hell. Clearly, they are visions sent by ancestral spirits, and they are meant to be shared. Perhaps they will inspire writers, movie makers, and other creative people to produce healing, mind-altering work. Perhaps they will inspire contemplation and sincere conversations. At this point, I’m just going to dump a bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table. See what you can do with them.
During World War II, when gasoline was rationed, or unavailable to civilians, hundreds of thousands of vehicles in dozens of nations were converted to run on wood gas. Car owners installed equipment that weighed 400 to 500 pounds (180 to 225 kg), plus another 50 to 100 pounds (22 to 45 kg) of fuel — wood chips or charcoal.
In the firebox, fuel was ignited to release the gasses, primarily nitrogen and carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide was the flammable and explosive energy source. It was also extremely poisonous, much to the delight of morticians. Many folks drove with their windows rolled down. The gas contained twice as much non-flammable nitrogen as carbon monoxide, which meant that it was not a high-powered fuel.
In wartime Germany, 500,000 wood gas vehicles were in use, including cars, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships, and trains. These vehicles were also used in Denmark, Sweden, France, Finland, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, Korea, and Australia.
Charcoal-powered cars were developed in China in 1931, and they remained popular into the 1950s. Before World War II, the French were consuming 50,000 tons of wood for vehicle fuel. This increased to 500,000 tons by 1943.
Readers who want to get a better feel for what life was like in an era of wood-fuelled transport should read Producer Gas & the Australian Motorist by Don Bartlett. It’s a 26 page discussion of what Australian drivers experienced during World War II, when little gasoline was available.
Today, rising gasoline prices are renewing interest in wood-power. Modern technology allows wood-powered cars to cruise at 68 mph (110 km/h), with a driving range of 62 miles (100 km), consuming 66 pounds (30 kg) of wood. There’s just one little drawback with biofuels. “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.” France was not alone. Remember that there were far, far fewer cars in the world 70 years ago.
Americans are fiercely defensive about their sacred guns, but this passion is trivial in comparison to our God-given right to drive energy-guzzling motorized wheelchairs. Most of us would rather be stoned to death by an angry crowd of Taliban than switch to bikes or buses. Have no doubt that when gas rises above $20 or $30 a gallon, or when filling stations are out of gas for days or weeks at a time, countless hucksters will fall out of the sky, selling wood gas conversion units — and every one of them will be bought.
Air travel is a dinosaur industry, and will likely be replaced by rail. The University of Minnesota is working with the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) and the Sustainable Rail International (SRI) to create powerful, fast, clean, and modern steam locomotives. “If the demonstration project is successful, however, trains could be merely a starting point for biocoal-fueled steam power.”
The Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota has invented biocoal. They feed “cellulosic biomaterial” (like dead trees) into a torrefaction process and turn it into black pellets. The raw material is exposed to high temperatures, pulverized, and then formed into fuel pellets. Unlike wood pellets, torrefied biomass pellets will not absorb water, so they can be stored outdoors. The pellets have the same energy content as coal, with no sulfur or heavy metals.
Tests in the US, Europe, and Japan have shown that torrefied biomass can successfully be used in coal-fired power plants with few modifications. Several plants for manufacturing torrefied biomass should be in operation by 2013. This fuel has a higher energy density than wood pellets or wood chips.
Here’s a gem: “Biomass gasification is being considered as a possible technology for converting at least 10 million acres of Texas brush into biofuel, according to Dr. Jim Ansley, Texas AgriLife Research rangeland ecologist in Vernon.” Vast areas of mesquite and juniper wood are just going to waste, and need to be put to productive use.
This winter, many Greeks are heating with wood, since the tax on heating oil rose 450 percent. Slimeballs are busy illegally cutting trees in national forests. At night, people are going into Athens parks and cutting limbs and felling trees. High levels of smoke are sending pollution readings far beyond danger levels. What’s odd is that this hasn’t been a cold winter. In Athens, nighttime temperatures typically dip into the low 40s (F). That’s warmer than where I live.
I’ve run my heater maybe four hours all winter. I’m a writer, and writers have no choice but to live on nothing. Every morning I get out of bed and put on a tee-shirt, heavy sweatshirt, fleece jacket, thick hooded sweatshirt, insulated cap, blue jeans, socks and shoes, and I’m ready for a long day of work. Writers know that our sense of coldness is culturally programmed — it’s all in your head — and has little to do with our animal bodies. Once we understand this vital secret, we can live with far greater comfort, at far lower temperatures, at far less expense.
So anyway, as we move beyond the bubble of cheap energy, we will certainly burn more biomass. Will we use biomass energy to fuel our wood stove, cars, tractors, trucks, railroads, and power grid? No doubt we’ll give it a good try. It’s clearly an insane idea, but it’s hard for us to imagine a life without our addictions.
Anyone who has read John Perlin’s essential book, A Forest Journey, clearly understands the folly of running an industrial civilization on wood. It’s been tried many times, and always failed, because it wiped out a resource that the civilization depended on for its survival — just like we’re doing today with fossil fuels.
Jared Diamond is a geography professor at UCLA. He has given many lectures on the Easter Island story. His students always have a difficult time grasping the image of natives cutting down the last tree on the island. “That's simply not possible — people aren’t that stupid!” Well, unfortunately, yes we are, is Diamond's conclusion in his book, Collapse.
Today, we’re moving in the direction toward a treeless planet — Easter Island II. Ten years from now, somewhere in Nebraska, there may be a morbidly obese accountant who drives his wood-powered F350 4X4 monster truck two miles to work every day. His fuel box is empty. In his back yard is the last living tree on Earth.
OK, so those are the puzzle pieces.