Can a Wood Gasifier Really Be a Reliable Energy Source?


A few years back I fell in love with a show called “The Colony” on the Discovery Channel. If you haven’t seen it before, this reality show takes a group of seemingly random people and drops them into the middle of a staged, post-apocalyptic pandemic scenario.


The colonists are left in a desolate urban compound with minimal supplies and given 1 simple goal. Survive.


Over the next 2 months the colonists must defend their home from raiders, procure food, water and even develop alternative energy sources for electricity in order to survive and thrive in the new post-apocalyptic world.


In the first season (there were only 2) one of the characters has the idea to build a wood gasifier in order to fuel their makeshift generator. I could spend another 5,000 words explaining the exact concept of the Colonist’s wood gasifier and how they were able to use it to generate electricity, but this video is directly from the show and goes into a lot more detail.

Using wood gasifiers as a long-term fuel solution  


Wood gas has been used to run engines for a very long time. During World War 2, thousands of people across Europe actually converted their automobiles from gasoline to wood gas since the bulk of European petroleum at the time was going to the war efforts and was expensive and hard to come by.


1940's German car converted to wood gas

1940’s German car converted to wood gas


Ever since the Colony came out, wood gasifiers have come out of historical obscurity and have become a popular topic of conversation in the modern prepper world. Being able to generate electricity out of wood sounds amazing from a self-reliance standpoint, but in reality, is it really this easy?


The answer, (of course) as with most TV myth-busting is no… not by a long shot.



Why we don’t drive wood-powered cars


First and foremost, although I’ve seen instructions about how to build wood gasifiers and tons of prepper articles on them as well, no one seems to be pointing out the obvious flaws of this system.


Before we even get into efficiency and resources… let’s get something rather important out of the way first…


The gas that is produced from a wood gasifier (your fuel) is Carbon Monoxide. Carbon Monoxide is incredibly volatile. It can and will explode under pressure and prolonged exposure to it kills hundreds of people across the country every year. It’s very dangerous. So dangerous in fact, that it can’t even be stored like natural or other gases, which significantly limits how safely you can actually use this fuel to power something like a diesel generator and how practical it really is as a fuel alternative.


Secondly, being able to produce engine-running fuel from wood is great and all, but no one seems to take into consideration just how much wood it takes to keep one of these things going. A basic setup like the Colony’s (which let’s be honest, is probably much better than the majority of us could make…especially in a SHTF scenario) requires a lot of wood to keep running.


Not only do you have to continually make sure there is a burning fire in the bottom of the gasifier (oh, and it has to be pretty-well controlled fire as well or the whole thing could blow up from too much pressure inside of it), but you also have to “load” the gasifier with the wood that releases the wood gas. That’s a heck of a lot of wood, especially when the majority of the gas is being wasted because it is too volatile to compress and store.


If this is your primary means of power, where is all that wood going to come from? I hope you have a forest in your backyard because an entire warehouse lot of pallets weren’t enough for the Colonists for even 60 days. They were running very low on wood before the show was over, and they had already moved to a solar panel system as their primary energy source. This means they probably didn’t have enough wood to run the gasifier for even 30 days.


One of the other things the Colonists failed to mention is how dirty wood gas really is. It’s far from a clean-burning, efficient fuel. Using wood gas for more than a couple months is going to leave that engine completely unusable unless it’s taken apart and cleaned. The wood gas creates tar residue on the engine’s parts that will eventually make it seize up and become unusable.


All gassed up and nowhere to go


Lastly, let’s talk about energy storage. Even if in the very best of scenarios you’re able to build an efficient, stable wood gasifier, that’s far from the end of your energy concerns. In fact, all a gasifier does is take one fuel source and converts it to another. It doesn’t hold power; it doesn’t actually generate electricity on its own. It’s just a fuel….a very dangerous, picky and temperamental fuel at that.


You’re still going to need an engine to run off the wood gas, an alternator to convert the rotations of the engine into electricity, a way to store that electricity and a way to convert that stored electricity into usable energy for lights and appliances.


Out of all of those things, only the wood gas is even remotely sustainable… and even then you’re going to need that personal forest of wood.


Now, before we conclude, I should add in there are several modern, professionally-made wood gasifiers out there that do reduce a lot of these common problems, however they are very expensive and still require lots of cleaning. In my opinion, they’re simply not worth the money or the hassle compared to other alternative energies.


If you’re up against a wall like the Colonists were, and your only option for energy is a wood gasifier, then obviously knowing how to build and maintain one would be pretty handy knowledge, but as far as a practical prepping solution for fuel; gas, propane, solar and wind are much better long-term options.

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1 comment

  1. Dan Foresman

    I respectfully beg to differ with the tone of this article. Consider that the following two elements are the linchpins of civilisation, refrigeration and lights. Lights, can be l.e.d. and need not be tied to any system that can supply power for tools and appliances.
    If a wood gasifier can run long enough to get a block of ice made, or super-cooled water, there’s your “battery.” (stored useful work) If the goal is to have 4 hours a day of heat, (to warm a thermal mass like a barrel of water, sand, etc…) power-tools, ice making capability and a washing machine, say… There is a workaround for a large battery system requirement, since heat is a byproduct of a gasifier, it makes a lot more sense than a fireplace. Really the nightmare of off the grid is battery systems. A gasifier could be emplaced in a greenhouse, hybridised with sunlight and growlight systems to extend the growing season and provide a warmed enclosure…
    All I’m saying is that any open and shut case on this subject is very trite.

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