No doubt many of you have read or heard about David Nichol’s woodgas F-150. I came across it during a media hailstorm a few months ago (which has since petered out). But while I was doing research on the One-Gallon Challenge, I saw that David’s truck was going to be participating. I gathered up my camera and notepad and my best friend (who I sort of tricked into coming) and took the drive to Greenfield Mass. last Wednesday night to get a look at this truck, and other fuel-sippers in person.
I learned a whole lot more than I bargained for.
First, I need to get this off my shoulders. I am not your standard “save the world, lets hold hands, everybody be happy” kind of alt-fuel guy. I tend to fall more in the “I hate spending so much money on fuel when it could better be spent on beer” crowd. I eat meat, and believe bacon should have its own catagory on the food pyramid. At the One-Gallon Challenge, I stuck out like a gangrenous thumb. Not that I have anything against ultra-liberals who wear their hair in ponytails and can’t even remember what a hamburger tastes like. But that ain’t me.
So when I saw a short guy wearing a clean white shirt and blue jeans standing next to a pickup truck I immediately gravitated away from the Prius and microcar crowd.
David shows the crowd his fuel source; beetle-ridden wood cut down by town authorities
David Nichol’s was at all times surrounded by a crowd, many of whom had seen local television or CNN coverage of his wood-powered truck. Using a process called gasification, his 1989 Ford F-150 6-cylinder (the exact same kind of truck my dad bought and used for 15 years as a contractor) was able to go 1-2 miles on a pound of wood waste while producing nearly zero emissions.
I did not really asked David any questions; I didn’t have to. The audience was asking all the right questions, and then listened as David explained some pretty complicated concepts on an understandable level. From what I could gather, his gasification engine heats any bio-mass, including garbage, into a hydrogen fuel. Using his patented process, it becomes a self-sustaining reaction; there is no fire, just vapor, which is cooled and condensed down to air temperature, and then injected into the engine. The 4.9 liter inline-6 engine has not been modified, save that the air filter was removed and a pipe from the gasifier now runs into the intake. There is no chimney, and all that is left from the process is some ash.
There are two drawbacks to this system right now. One is, it takes David a few minutes to get the system going, using a propane torch. This is not a turn-key ready system, but then again, it was made out of a wet-dry vac, garbage cans, and a few junkyard devices.
This is the wood-gas contraption, which vaporizes bio-mass into hydrogen
The other problem is the size of the system and the fuel. As you can see, this system takes up a good two-feet of bed space in this full-size truck. It also sticks over the cab, and replaces the gas tanks (which teld a total of 45 gallons of gas). David also has to drive aorund with 1-3 gallons of gas in his truck at all times due to tax law. As you know, when you put gas in your vehicle you pay tax, which goes towards maintaining the road. Since David’s system uses no gas, he pays no tax. He also doesn’t pay for electricity or heat in his home.
Gasification heats and vaporizes bio-mass at over 2,200 degrees Fahrenhiet. This gives off about 22,000 BTUs of heat, and at idle the engine makes 10 kilowatts of electricity at idle. He says it could save the average homeowner $11,000 a year alone in electricity and heating costs. He calls it a better stimulus plan than Obama’s $787 billion package earlier this year. David is having trouble getting funding because there is no money in that bill for wood gasification of his type. He also claims that Ford was a huge supplier of woodgas engines during and after World War II, when petroleum rationing sent many people looking for alternative fuels to use. That is why he picked this truck to demonstrate his project (that, and it was $50).
A wood-gas Ford farm tractor from the War years
Photo: Per Larssons Museum
Even though woodgas has been around for well over 100 years (David first got the idea to experiment with it whilst reading through on old school lamp gas) the idea still lacks merit among skeptics. But it was good enough for many farmers and mechanics to get them through two World Wars. Nichols even claims that Ford was the largest manufacturer of woodgas stoves, but that many of them were destroyed and the patent number wiped out once oil regained dominence.
But there is also the problem of fuel. We need trees, which provide the best source of power for David’s invention, though just about any biomass will do. He says a cord of wood (128 cubic feet, or a 4’x4’x8′ stack of wood) propeled him 5700 miles, and his engine currently has over 10,000 miles.
There are also the powers-that-be, who may not want such a lovely piece of energy independance powering America’s homes. Imagine all your power coming from your food waste instead of the electric company? That might make some very rich people very concerned.
As for the rest of the One-Gallon Challenge, I missed the race itself. I had to work, you know. The other cars, like the Moonbeam, Roopod, and Dirigio are all neat in their own right. But they don’t really solve the problem of fuel, they just shrunk the car. I’m too big of a guy to fit into a tiny vehicle, and besides, what happens in a head-on collision? Nothing pretty, I bet. David told me after the race he planned on handing them back their one gallon of gas.
It was nice seeing an actual working model, though I didn’t get to hear it start. There is a patent pending for the process, and David hopes that his company, 21st Century Motor Works, takes off with wood gas vehicles propelling them to sucess.