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


There’s a wood gasification sensation in Alabama, where Wayne Keith hasn’t used more than a few gallons of gasoline since 2004, thus saving about $40,000.


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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4/9/2014 6:29:24 PM

Fantastic job and excellent engineering! A great application of basic chemistry; in the oxygen-starved, extremely hot environment of the gasifier, carbohydrates are reduced to hydrocarbons (notice the similarities in their names). Although deadwood is somewhat a limited resource, with proper large-scale tree farming this could be quite sustainable. Maybe not for the whole country, but it doesn't have to be. It just needs to make a good dent in fossil-fuel usage. There are lots of other sources of carbohydrate biomass that could be used as feedstock too, many of them waste products e.g. the used fermentation mash from beer production, corn husks, etc. Any way we can give "the finger" to Middle-East oil is a plus in my book for both America and the planet... The condensate can also be distilled for useful compounds, including fuels as it likely contains quite a bit of methanol (wood alcohol). PS: Keep up the great work!

Kyle Adams
4/13/2012 2:36:50 AM

You use the air control valve to relieve pressure in the system and cover the fuel hopper to stop the reaction. That's for FEMA gasifiers. I'm guessing that it'd be the same idea with a Keith gasifier.

Pearse Roche
3/31/2012 12:25:21 PM

Hi had read about this before. Had looked for plans but plans were hard to read and didn't print well. We in Ireland pay $8.40 a gallon and has gone up by 35% in the last 3 years due to government taxes. So if anyone would have easy to follow plans it would be great.

3/30/2012 9:46:13 PM

This is a great idea for those of us who are looking to achieve self-sufficiency, but one question-- how do you turn it off when you get where you're going, just vent off the gas until the fuel is spent?

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