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Pickup runs on wood, waste

Dave Collins
AP Writer

Killingly, CT (AP) — From the first time he saw Emmett “Doc” Brown fire up the Mr. Fusion home energy reactor in the “Back to the Future” movies, Dave Nichols has wanted to make a vehicle run on garbage.

Two decades after the trilogy, the 42-year-old homebuilder and auto shop owner from eastern Connecticut isn’t traveling through time in a DeLorean, yet. But he has modified his 1989 Ford F150 pickup truck to run on wood, leaves, cardboard and other biomass with a fuel system that he said expels virtually no pollution.

The technology is called gasification, and it’s been around since the 1800s, but faded away under oil’s dominance.

Nichols and others say reviving gasification, which can also heat and power homes, has exciting possibilities, from reducing dependence on foreign oil to cutting pollution.

“It’s a simple science from 130 years ago that can be used today to solve all of our problems … and it runs on potentially free fuel,” Nichols said. “This type of technology has to be developed, and it has to be developed now.”

Gasification projects have been sprouting up across the country.

The new interest in gasification comes as President Barack Obama presses to double the nation’s use of renewable energy over the next three years, with $15 billion a year to be spent to develop solar power, wind power, advanced biofuels, fuel-efficient cars and other technologies.

Gasification works by heating organic materials to high temperatures without flames. The resulting chemical reactions produce a hydrogen-hydrocarbon gas mixture in vapor form that is almost as potent as gasoline, Nichols said.

His pickup truck appears to run like any other and easily reached 40 mph and above on local roads on a recent day, but it has no gas tanks. Nichols said he can get it up to more than 80 mph. The only noticeable difference is a contraption behind the cab’s rear window that takes up some of the back and looks somewhat like a wood stove.

A metal barrel, where the heating occurs, extends just above the cab’s roof. The gas is captured from the barrel and a vacuum system sucks it through piping that runs under the truck to the engine.

Nichols said he has driven it 10,000 miles without gas, including a trip about three months ago when he loaded up the back with about 400 pounds of wood and drove some 600 miles across Connecticut, then to New Hampshire and Boston before returning home. A pound of wood or other material will fuel his truck for 1 to 2 miles, meaning the truck costs about 8 cents a mile to fuel, compared to roughly 19 cents per mile if it used gasoline at today’s prices.

“This is real. This is no game,” Nichols said. “The mechanics at the garage thought I was crazy. They’re not laughing anymore.”

He started the project about seven years ago, after reading an instruction book about lamp gas technology in the 1800s.

Nichols has been trying to perfect the system ever since, with a few stumbles along the way, and said he’s close. One of the final parts is an electronic system that would allow drivers to push a button, instead of having to start it with a propane torch like Nichols does now. He’s applied for a federal grant to help with the electronic system and other improvements.

Nichols fills the reactor with slicked log pieces about 5 inches in diameter and 1 to 2 inches thick. That’s where the gasification starts.

The organic materials in the reactor are exposed to extreme heat, which breaks them down into vapor gases.

Then a startup vacuum system is turned on to get the gases flowing to the engine.

The temperature inside the reactor reaches more than 2,000 degrees, but the gas cools to about 150 degrees about 5 feet from the reactor. Passengers in the pickup’s cab don’t feel the warmth.

Gases are drawn from the reactor by the vacuum at first, and later the engine itself. The gases are pulled through pipes and filters to cool and clean them, and they end up at about air temperature when they reach the engine’s air intake. The startup process takes a few minutes.

Nichols said the hydrogen-hydrocarbon gas mixture is then mixed with air in the intake manifold, then goes into the cylinders just like gasoline and is ignited to power the engine. He said the only thing he did to the engine was take off the air filter and hook up the gasification system to the air intake valves.

“It’s a complicated version of easy,” Nichols said.

The end products of the process are a little bit of ash, carbon dioxide and water, he said. He also claims there’s little or no carbon footprint.

Nichols has started a company, 21st Century Motor Works, to work on and market gasification systems, but doesn’t have a patent yet.

Larry Baxter, a chemical engineering professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, said gasification for vehicles is a scientifically proven process, but it has several drawbacks that have prevented commercial success.

One of those problems, he said, is that the process typically produces particles and other materials that can damage engines. Another is that people would have to be loading up their cars and trucks with wood or other materials, making it impractical. And, he said, the technology is really not much better for the environment.

“It’s fantastic people are doing these kinds of things, but they’ll never be more than a niche or novelty,” Baxter said. “It’s a scientifically sound but practically difficult process. It would be wrong to think of these as efficient or practical.”

Nichols disagrees, saying he has found a way to produce a clean-burning fuel. He said the technology could save people thousands of dollars a year in gasoline, electricity and heating costs.

“This could be Obama’s ultimate stimulus package,” he said.

Nichols said he eventually wants to patent his reactor core, but his focus right now is educating the public and getting a product out on the market.

He also wants to build a smaller version of the vehicle fueling system, so it could be more practical for cars.

“Now if I could get a hold of a DeLorean,” Nichols said.

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