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The Cult Of The Wood-Burning Car

Giving the term “smoke trees” a whole new meaning

With the price of gasoline ebbing and flowing based on supply, demand and the ever-shifting winds of global politics, a favorite guessing game among transportation wonks and scientists has been the next vehicle power source to go mainstream.

Electric cars are clearly very of-the-moment, and liquid natural gas already powers vehicles around the globe. But how about repurposed vegetable oil, which has juiced the tour vans of Phish roadies for decades without catching on widely? Or solar energy, which still exists outside the mainstream power grid, yet is popular enough to warrant a solar-car road-rally event? Perhaps vehicles will simply become self-driving. According to some accounts, autonomous cars could reduce greenhouse gas emissions between two and four percent in the first 10 years.

But to a certain subset of Scandinavians, all these well-intentioned ideas are… well… barking up the wrong tree.

Sweden and Finland are currently seeking support to revive the wood-burning car, which first rose to prominence in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. Invented originally by English car company Thornycroft in 1905 and advanced a couple of decades later by a tinkering French chemist, the science behind wood-burning cars relied primarily on a clunky, cylindrical steam punk-looking chamber that burned well-dried wood. (If you run out of gas, snapping off a nearby tree limb likely won’t get you up and running since the wood would be too moist.) By 1945, about a million vehicles across Europe were running on trees, including 60,000 in Sweden and 80% of all vehicles in Finland.

While the practice fell out of favor over the course of the twentieth century, it has remained a rallying cry each time a global oil shortage peaks (like in the ‘70s) and among those interested in self-sustainability or living off the grid. Wood power has even become the gold standard in North Korea, where Grist reports that it’s used to fuel trucks.

Today, “woodgassers” (as they’re known within their niche tribe) are once again sprouting up all over the world and gathering online to share tips and tricks for ironing out the (many, many) kinks that come with operating such quirky, typically home-brewed vehicles. The tech hasn’t come far despite being a century removed from its invention. It’s still a clunky, inefficiently sized operating platform. But the most promising advancements seem to be coming from a wood-gas enthusiast named Juha Sipilä—who happens to be the prime minister of Finland.

Sipilä’s prototype, the El Kamina, is a modified Chevrolet El Camino containing the first fully automated gasification system controlled by a dashboard computer. Unsurprisingly, Sipilä also founded a sustainable energy company called Volter, meaning he’s not just a green living hobbyist. Advocates point to the El Kamina’s environmentally-friendly status as a “closed-carbon loop,” and the fact that there’s enough woodland territory in Finland means there are enough resources to support the gassy needs of almost every Finnish family.

But many remain skeptical about the safety of the practice. Gasification produces high levels of poisonous carbon monoxide, and driving wood-burning cars was responsible for a quarter of all monoxide-related deaths in Denmark during the Second World War. (For what it’s worth, woodgassers say detection systems have significantly improved.)

So, if you’re waiting for wood-powered cars to replace the lithium ion battery in any sort of timely fashion you’re sadly out of luck. But if you want to dive into the woodgasser subculture a bit, we suggest looking at this Swedish man’s blog from 2007. He chronicled his travels with friends across their home country in a low-tech yet mostly functional wood-burning Volvo they built from spare parts, including an improvised wood-chopping machine comprising a chainsaw, a piston and an old car engine.

As the summer months approach and you gear up for all that camping and road tripping, maybe get a few friends together and see if you can safely construct a “closed carbon loop” of your own and explore the American countryside without being held hostage by spiking gas prices. You could end up stalled in your driveway, or you could end up in the middle of your own personal green energy revolution.

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