Until the early 1980s, wood gasifiers all over the world (including the World War II designs) operated on the principle that both the fuel hopper and the combustion unit be airtight; the hopper was sealed with a top or lid that had to be opened every time wood was added. Smoke and gas vented into the atmosphere while new wood was being loaded; the operator had to be careful not to breathe the unpleasant smoke and toxic fumes.
Over the last few years, a new gasifier design has been developed through cooperative efforts among researchers at the Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado, the University of California in Davis, the Open University in London, the Buck Rogers Company in Kansas, and the Biomass Energy Foundation, Inc., in Florida (Reed and Das 1988). This simplified design employs a balanced, negative-pressure concept in which the old type of sealed fuel hopper is no longer necessary. A closure is only used to preserve the fuel when the engine is stopped. This new technology has several popular names, including “stratified, downdraft gasification” and “open top gasification.” Two years of laboratory and field testing have indicated that such simple, inexpensive gasifiers can be built from existing hardware and will perform very well as emergency units.
A schematic diagram of the stratified, downdraft gasifier is shown in Fig. 1-3. During operation of this gasifier, air passes uniformly downward through four zones, hence the name “stratified:”
1. The uppermost zone contains unreacted fuel through which air and oxygen enter. This region serves the same function as the fuel hopper in the older, World War II designs.
2. In the second zone, the wood fuel reacts with oxygen during pyrolysis. Most of the volatile components of the fuel are burned in this zone and provide heat for continued pyrolysis reactions. At the bottom of this zone, all of the available oxygen from the air should be completely reacted. The open top design ensures uniform access of air to the pyrolysis region.
3. The third zone is made up of charcoal from the second zone. Hot combustion gases from the pyrolysis region react with the charcoal to convert the carbon dioxide and water vapor into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
4. The inert char and ash, which constitute the fourth zone, are normally too cool to cause further reactions; however, because the fourth zone is available to absorb heat or oxygen as conditions change, it serves both as a buffer and as a charcoal storage region. Below this zone is the grate. The presence of char and ash serves to protect the grate from excessive temperatures.
The stratified, downdraft design has a number of advantages over the World War II gasifier designs. The open top permits fuel to be fed more easily and allows easy access. The cylindrical shape is easy to fabricate and permits continuous flow of fuel. No special fuel shape or pretreatment is necessary; any blocky fuel can be used.
The foremost question about the operation of the stratified, downdraft gasifier concerns char and ash removal. As the charcoal reacts with the combustion gases, it eventually reaches a very low density and breaks up into a dust containing all of the ash as well as a percentage of the original carbon. This dust may be partially carried away by the gas and might eventually begin to plug the gasifier. Hence, it must be removed by shaking or agitation. When the stratified gasifier unit is used to power vehicles, it is automatically shaken by the vehicle’s motion.
An important issue in the design of the stratified, downdraft gasifier is the prevention of fuel bridging and channeling. High-grade biomass fuels, such as wood blocks or chips, will flow down through the gasifier because of gravity and downdraft airflow. However, other fuels (such as shredded chips, sawdust, and bark) can form a bridge, which will obstruct continuous flow and cause very high temperatures. Bridging can be prevented by stirring, shaking, or by agitating the grate or by having it agitated by the vehicle’s movement. For prolonged idling, a hand-operated shaker has been included in the design in this report.
A prototype unit of the stratified, downdraft gasifier design (see Figs. S-2 and S-3) has been fabricated according to the instructions in this report; however, it has not been widely tested at this time. The reader is urged to use his ingenuity and initiative in constructing his own wood gas generator. As long as the principle of airtightness in the combustion regions, in the connecting piping, and in the filter units is followed, the form, shape, and method of assembly is not important.