Turning Wood to Gas to Electricity

100205_gasifier.jpgWhile in Berkeley recently, we scoped out a future Peak Moment show with the innovative folks at All Power Labs. They produce (and, with their online forum of local tinkerers, are continuing to improve) a low-cost, open source design, “wood gasifiers experimentation kit” that uses biomass like wood chips to produce a gas which runs a generator to produce electricity.

We got a quick tour from designer Jim Mason. Brilliant design and simple manufacturing, with the right spirit: share and empower others. It enables distributed power generation, like at our place to charge the batteries in our solar power system in winter, or on farms in northern India.

Their units are manufactured from simple stock products, can be shipped worldwide by UPS. Using design templates, they can be manufactured in rural and third-world countries. At this point it’s not quite an off-the-shelf appliance one installs like a washing machine, but a tinkerer will have no problems.

A perfect example of of intermediate technology by and for the people (a la E.F. Shumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, which influenced my thinking about sustainability when I read it in the early 1970s). Thanks to viewer Grant Miller, developer of the Village on Sewanee Creek for this lead.


  1. Hermann, thanks for your reminiscence. A young friend sent this link to an article in LowTech magazine titled “Wood gas vehicles: firewood in the fuel tank” at http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2010/01/wood-gas-cars.html

    It has lots of history and pictures of both modern and historic wood-gas fueled automobiles. Including a picture of a VW bug like you describe. Enjoy this blast from the past.

    Wood-fired autos are a fascinating idea, though from the article, it seems they’re best suited for short trips. Otherwise, you have to carry a lot of wood with you or get it along the way.

  2. Janaia, “Wood gasifiers” immediately rang a bell in my memory:

    Towards the end of WWII we used “Holzgas” to power the cars. The converters were smaller, black steel cylinders about 1 1/2 feet diameter and about 4 feet high. The gas was used similar to liquid gas today to drive the engine. The “gas tank” was a standard potato-burlap-sack full of wood pieces about 2 in cubes. That was one converter filling.

    Travel range of a converted VW bug (Picture the converter sticking out at the place of the rear seats) was about 40km per filling.
    Pickup trucks used them also.

    I don’t recall having a foto of one modified vehicle.


  3. Professor (Wadzy) says:

    Very interested in your Gasification unit. I build Pyrolysis machines in the Maldives.

    study & copy Mother Nature

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