A hundred million years ago, something died. Actually, a lot of somethings died. After they died, rocks fell on them, and more rocks fell on those rocks. Eventually, all those rocks created enough pressure and, along with the heat of the dead things decaying, this nasty, gooey, black crud that bubbled up out of cracks in the ground. Early Man figured out that this shit was flammable and dipped arrows in it. Fast-forward a few hundred thousand years and man puts it and fire in a box with eight pistons connected to a drive shaft with four wheels and suddenly the capital of Indiana becomes mecca on Memorial Day.
But among this storied relationship between mankind and gooey black flammable crud there are times of separation. The easy access to plentiful reserves of oil and refined gasoline were crucial to the Allied forces’ ability to move troops, supplies, and weapons to multiple fronts, and to take advantage of the air power available. Petroleum policy then became a matter of national security for all the nations involved, and Europe, most particularly, saw a gasoline shortage hit hard. The US at the time sat on domestic reserves and had the lion’s share of refining facilities, and coped with the wartime need through community-controlled rationing. Europe, subjected to stricter shortages and rationing, was forced to find another way, and many Europeans did so through converting their automobiles from petrol use to wood gas.
Wood gasification, put simply, is the gases released when wood or other biomass is burned at high temperatures, and with low oxygen. The wood gas can be captured and run through the fuel system of an internal combustion engine. In an imperfect system, there’s this incredible stuff called “biochar” that actually sequesters carbon and makes a kickass addition to your garden. In a perfect system, just about all the biomass is completely converted, leaving little more than some tarry residue that needs to be cleaned from the apparatus.
Another interesting fact about petroleum is that it saved the whales when kerosene replaced whale oil in lamps. A hundred and seventy-odd years later, it’s doing a number on the rest of the marine life. There’s no one way for all of us to end our dependency on oil overnight and without an immediate, life-threatening need, but biomass gasifiers just might be one of those past ingenuities that will serve us well in the future.
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