Wood Gas Wizard

Would you believe wood chunks can power a truck? Take a ride with Wayne Keith, who uses wood gas to fuel everything from daily driving to heavy-duty farm work to breaking speed records.

| April/May 2012

Back in 2004, Wayne Keith drew a line in the sand at $1.50. That’s the price at which the Alabama native would no longer buy a gallon of gasoline. Keith, who makes his living raising cows, growing hay and milling timber in a small town about 30 miles northeast of Birmingham, wasn’t bluffing. He knew he had an alternative fuel in his backyard: the hundreds of pounds of scrap wood he generates every time he runs his sawmill.

Since 2004, Keith has powered his trucks with wood. Sound strange? Trust me, this is no pipe dream. Many years ago, when I managed the MOTHER EARTH NEWS research facilities in North Carolina, we built wood-powered vehicles for the same reasons Keith does today. But Keith has taken wood gasification well beyond what I could’ve imagined. This unassuming, down-to-earth farmer is an energy and transportation pioneer, with more than 250,000 miles of wood gas driving under his belt and about $40,000 saved by using wood chunks instead of gasoline.  

“My Dodge Dakota truck gets about 5,200 miles per cord,” Keith says in his easygoing Southern drawl. (A cord is a common measurement for wood, meaning a wood stack 4 feet deep by 4 feet high by 8 feet long.) “I paid for my farm in the early 1990s by selling wood at $27 per cord. Today a cord costs about $50 [wholesale] in this area. I burn scrap wood from my sawmill, but if I had to buy wood, I could still travel for less than a penny a mile.”

For comparison, if gasoline costs $3.50 a gallon, your vehicle would have to achieve nearly 350 miles per gallon for its driving cost to be a penny per mile.

4 Reasons for Wood Gas

The idea of powering vehicles with wood or other biomass energy is nothing new. Trucks, cars, motorcycles, boats, tractors and even airplanes have been adapted to burn wood. By the end of World War II, when there were critical shortages of petroleum, there were more than 1 million wood gas civilian vehicles operating in Asia and Europe. 

After the energy crisis of the late 1970s, MOTHER EARTH NEWS revisited wood gas as a homegrown fuel option. We had heard from several readers who’d built their own wood gasifiers. Eventually, we had all of these running on wood gas: a Chevy pickup, a sawmill, and a 12.5-kilowatt electric generator for remote power. But why would anyone want to use wood for motor fuel?

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