Germany’s Deutsche Bank has issued a note on the current energy supply situation that says that if Russia makes deeper cuts in the supply of natural gas to western Europe as a result of sanctions over the war in Ukraine, German households might have to turn to an alternative fuel to heat their homes, wood.
“There are lots of elements of uncertainty,” the note said. According to long-range weather forecasts, Europe is expecting a harder winter than it normally experiences. Russia has already cut shipments to countries like Bulgaria and Poland for their refusal to use rubles for payment. Also, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company has sent mixed messages over whether or not the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which has been shut down for maintenance, will reopen.
The Deutsche Bank note said if natural gas supplies are not sufficient, coal and lignite could replace natural gas in the industrial and power generating sectors but that for domestic heating wood could substitute. The idea of using wood for domestic heating is about as old as mankind but modern concerns about energy supply have made it relevant again. When the state of Texas had blackouts due to severe winter weather and renewable backup energy sources failing, many homeowners used fireplaces and wood stoves to keep warm.
If that comes to pass in Europe, this would not be the first time Germans and other Europeans would switch to wood for energy. During World War II, as many as a half million passenger cars were run on what is called “wood gas”, also called syngas or producer gas. Germany did not have sufficient supplies of petroleum for its military uses, so it developed synthetic fuels. General Patton even had some of the 3rd Army’s vehicles run on synthetic fuel that they drained from captured or abandoned German tanks. If the Wehrmacht, the German army, didn’t have enough fuel, you can be sure that regular Germans had to find alternatives for their motor vehicles. As a strategic commodity, gasoline was severely rationed during the war, in the United States as well as Germany.
In the 1920s, French chemist Georges Imbert invented a coal gasifier, later licensing the process to German firms.
Wood gas, sometimes called producer gas, is the result of thermal gasification of carbon-containing materials such as coal or biomass. It’s produced by pyrolysis and two high temperature (~1,300°F) reactions that produce, among other gases, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and methane, which are combustible. Fortuitously, conventional carburetted gasoline-fired internal combustion engines will run on wood gas just fine without extensive modifications. The biggest problem, literally, is finding space for the gasifier, about the size of a 50-gallon hot water tank. Some gasifiers were mounted to the car or truck, while in some cases the wood gas generator was trailered.
There were even thousands of “wood gas stations” in Europe, where motorists could stock up on wood.
Now, do I really expect millions of BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Volkswagens in Germany to start carrying around wood gasifiers? Probably not, petroleum supplies seem stable, but it’s hard to hear about Germans switching from “gas-to-wood” without thinking of the time when Germans used “wood-to-gas”.
[Image via YouTube]
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