Back during World War 2, fuel shortages propelled some to seek alternate methods of fueling their vehicles, and many turned to wood. By 1945, there were around one million wood-burning cars, or cars running on woodgas, across Europe. The technology lost popular appeal after the war, but today, some in Sweden and Finland are trying to bring it back. But is this a good thing?
Notably, Finnish Prime minister Juha Sipilä is a proponent of wood-burning cars. He outfitted his own, a Chevrolet El Camino he transformed into “El Kamina.” El Kamina has the first “fully automated gasification system” in a wood-burning car and is connected to a dashboard computer. It’s an advance on the old wood-burning cars of the 1940s, and Sipilä has said if more people used wood-burning cars, the country wouldn’t have to import so much oil. Back in the 1940s, 80 percent of Finnish vehicles relied on woodgas, and some believe the country should return to the practice to move towards vehicles operating on alternative fuel.
Is woodgas really our best option? Many tout woodgas as possessing environmental benefits, saying it’s cleaner than gas and even that wood-burning cars are carbon neutral since no energy is expended to refine the fuel other than the manual labor required to chop wood. Further, the process to convert biomass such as wood to liquid fuel “can consume more energy (and CO2) than the fuel delivers.”
One notable adopter is North Korea, who had to get creative without much access to fossil fuels. Sadly that’s not much of an argument in favor of the vehicles. There’s also concern over the compounds emitted, namely carbon monoxide. In World War II-era Denmark, wood-burning cars resulted in one fourth of all deaths from monoxide.
While some may claim that technically it’s a renewable resource, one look at France’s experience with wood-burning cars casts doubt. During World War II, when the country turned to wood-burning cars, they suffered from “severe deforestation.” We’re all for alternatively-powered cars, but we’ll probably hold out for ones that leave as minimal impact on the environment as possible.