FEMA Executive Summary

This report is one in a series of emergency technology assessments sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The purpose of this report is to develop detailed, illustrated instructions for the fabrication, installation, and operation of a biomass gasifier unit (i.e., a “producer gas” generator, also called a “wood gas” generator) which is capable of providing emergency fuel for vehicles, such as tractors and trucks, should normal petroleum sources be severely disrupted for an extended period of time. These instructions have been prepared as a manual for use by any mechanic who is reasonably proficient in metal fabrication or engine repair.

Fuel gas, produced by the reduction of coal and peat, was used for heating as early as 1840 in Europe and by 1884 had been adapted to fuel engines in England. Prior to 1940, gas generator units were a familiar, but not extensively utilized, technology. However, petroleum shortages during World War II led to widespread gas generator applications in the transportation industries of Western Europe. (Charcoal-burning taxis, a related application, were still common in Korea as late as 1970.) The United States, never faced with such prolonged €or severe oil shortages, has lagged far behind Europe and the Orient in familiarity with and application of this technology. However, a catastrophic event could disrupt the supply of petroleum in this country so severely that this technology might be critical in meeting the energy needs of some essential economic activities, such as the production and distribution of food.

In occupied Denmark during World War II, 95% of all mobile farm machinery, tractors, trucks, stationary engines, and fishing and ferry boats were powered by wood gas generator units. Even in neutral Sweden, 40% of all motor traffic operated on gas derived from wood or charcoal. All over Europe, Asia, and Australia, millions of gas generators were in operation between 1940 and 1946. Because of the wood gasifier’s somewhat low efficiency, the inconvenience of operation, and the potential health risks from toxic fumes, most of such units were abandoned when oil again became available in 1945. Except for the technology of producing alternate fuels, such as methane or alcohol, the only solution for operating existing internal combustion engines, when oil and petroleum products are not available, has been these simple, inexpensive gasifier units.

This report attempts to preserve the knowledge about wood gasification that was put into practical use during World War II. In this report, detailed step-by-step procedures are presented for constructing a simplified version of the World War II wood gas generator; this simple, stratified, downdraft gasifier unit (shown schematically in Fig. S-1) can be constructed from materials which would be widely available in the United States in a prolonged petroleum crisis. For example, the body of the unit consists of a galvanized metal garbage can atop a small metal drum; common plumbing fittings are used throughout; and a large, stainless steel mixing bowl is used for the grate. A prototype gasifier unit was fabricated from these instructions (see Fig. S-2); this unit was then mounted onto the front of a farm tractor and successfully field tested, using wood chips as the only fuel (see Fig. S-3). Photographic documentation of the actual assembly of the unit, as well as its operational field test, is included in the body of this report.

The use of wood gas generators need not be limited to transportation applications.

Stationary engines can also be fueled by wood gasifiers to run electric generators, pumps, and industrial equipment. In fact, the use of wood gas as a fuel is not even restricted to gasoline engines; if a small amount of diesel fuel is used for ignition, a properly adjusted diesel engine can be operated primarily on wood gas introduced through the intake manifold.

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