Wood Gas Generator
A Wood Gas Generator is a gasification unit which converts timber or charcoal into wood gas, a syngas consisting of atmospheric nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, traces of methane, and other gases, which – after cooling and filtering – can then be used to power an internal combustion engine or for other purposes. Historically wood gas generators were often mounted on vehicles, but present studies and developments concentrate mostly on stationary plants.
There is a rich literature on gas-works, town-gas, gas-generation, wood-gas, and producer gas, that is now in the public domain due to its age.
Most successful wood gas generators in use in Europe and the United States are some variation of the earlier Imbert design. Wood gas generators often use wood; however, charcoal can also be used as a fuel. It is denser and produces a cleaner gas without the tarry volatiles and excessive water content of wood.
When oil prices rose there was renewed interest in wood gas generators. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published a book in March 1989 describing how to build a gas generator in an emergency when oil was not available. It described a design called the “stratified downdraft gasifier” which solves several drawbacks of earlier types.
Download FEMA Wood gas generator as PDF
The FEMA wood gas generator is (by definition of the FEMA manual) an emergency gasifier. It is designed to be rapidly assembled in a true fuel crisis. This simplified design has distinct benefits over the earlier European units such as easier refueling and construction but is less popular than the earlier Imbert design because of significant new problems, which include a lack of a fixed oxidization zone and allows the oxidization zone to creep to a larger area, causing a drop in temperature; a lower operating temperature leads to tar production and it lacks a true reduction zone further increasing this design’s propensity to produce tar. Tar in the wood gas stream is considered a dirty gas and tar will gum up a motor quickly, possibly leading to stuck valves and rings.
A new design known as the Keith gasifier improves on the FEMA unit, incorporating extensive heat recovery and eliminating the tar problem. Testing at Auburn University has shown it to be 37% more efficient than running gasoline.
Download Keith Feedstock Efficiency Tests as PDF
Wood gas generators have a number of advantages over use of petroleum fuels:
- They can be used to run internal combustion engines (or gas turbines, for maximal efficiency) using wood, a renewable resource, and in the absence of petroleum or natural gas, for example, during a fuel shortage.
- They have a closed carbon cycle, contribute less to global warming, and are sustainable in nature.
- They can be relatively easily fabricated in a crisis using materials on hand.
- They are far cleaner burning than a wood fire or a gasoline-powered engine (without emissions controls), producing little, if any soot.
- When used in a stationary design, they reach their true potential, as they are feasible to use in small combined heat and power scenarios (with heat recovery from the wood gas producer, and possibly the engine/generator, for example, to heat water for hydronic heating), even in industrialized countries, even during good economic times, provided that a sufficient supply of wood is attainable. Larger-scale installations can reap even better efficiencies, and are useful for district heating as well.
The disadvantages of wood gas generators are:
- the large specific size
- the relatively slow starting speed; the time to heat the initially cold batch of wood to the necessary temperature level can take many minutes and in bigger plants even hours until the designed power is reached.
- a batch burning operation, that some designs feature, and that regularly interrupts the gas producing process.
- the stop operation out of a high load level is difficult (for example the stop of the engine using the gas): the residual heat still produces gas, which for a certain time leaves the gasifier either without control, or has to be used in a burner
- the primary combustible fuel-gas produced during gasification is carbon monoxide: it is an intentional fuel-product, and is subsequently burned to safe carbon dioxide in the engine (or other application) along with the other fuel-gases; however, continuous exposure to carbon monoxide can be fatal to humans even in small to moderate concentrations.
- the humidity of the wood (usually 15 to 20%) and the water vapor created by the O- and H-atoms of the dry wood itself (about 0.4 liters of water loaded with organic substances per kg of dry wood) condenses during the gas cooling and filtering procedure and yields a liquid (see also wood tar), which needs specific waste water treatment. This treatment requires about 25 to 35% of the created wood gas energy.
When not carefully designed and used, there exists considerable potential for injury or death due to wood gas containing a large percentage of poisonous carbon monoxide (CO) gas. Wood gasifiers of proven design and thoroughly tested construction are considered safe to use outdoors, or in a partially enclosed space, for example, under a shelter open to the air on two sides; they may also be considered relatively safe to use in an extremely well ventilated (e.g. negative pressure) indoor area not connected to any indoor area used for sleeping, equipped with redundant (more than 1), completely independent, battery-powered, regularly tested carbon-monoxide gas detectors. However, prudence must dictate that any sort of experimental wood gasifier design or new construction be thoroughly tested outdoors, and only outdoors, with a “buddy” at all times, and with constant vigilance for any sign of headache, drowsiness, or nausea, as these are the first symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
In addition, mixtures of excessive quantities of air and gas should be avoided as this could lead to the deflagration (explosion) of the gas in question if a combustion source is present. Long-term storage of wood-gas, except through the use of a gasholder-type water-displacement apparatus, should not be attempted, due to the volatile elements present in the gas, which, if allowed to excessively precipitate, will condense in the storage vessel. Under no circumstances should wood-gas ever be compressed to more than 1 bar (15 psi) above ambient, as this may induce condensation of volatiles, as well as lead to the likelihood of severe injury or death due to carbon monoxide or deflagration if the vessel leaks or fails