DIY Gasoline and Diesel from Wood and Trash

OK, I was wandering off down the path of an “old flame” of “gasogen” creation. It’s one of my “someday” projects. To make a “gizmo” that will turn wood chips and old paper / trash into burnable gas. This can be used for many things, from heating a home to running a forge to ‘process heat’ for making things to even running a car.

During the various world wars, many vehicles were converted to run on wood chips. Some were factory made that way. Notice the wood loading ‘hatch’ in the bonnet of this car:

VW That Runs on Wood Gas

VW That Runs on Wood Gas

(It would be much harder to do this today due to smog laws that make changing your vehicle a criminal act. Another reason to keep those old jallopies around for tinkering as they are subject to different laws ;-)

DIY Wood Driven "tractor"

DIY Wood Driven "tractor"

There is even a company that is making an ‘open source’ Gasifier Kit for folks who are interested, but do not particularly want to start from scrap iron and fundamental design:

So I’m wandering around their web site, thinking how this reminds me a lot of the Geeks-R-Us aspect of the Linux community and just bypassing that whole industrial control freaks money grubbing powermongers culture… when I stumble on this video.

A video of “Chemical Geeks” at play. The kind of thing I’ve done (though what I’ve done was on a smaller scale and not involving wood gas). And it warms my heart to see it. “Kids” just deciding to do a little playing around with some 1940’s tech and make a little “DIY” synthetic fuels factory… but upgraded with computer controls and new millenium materials.

Yes, you too can make gasoline and Diesel in the privacy of your own garage from lawn clippings and wood chips. Just don’t tell the fire marshal, your neighbors, or your insurance company 8-)

I love these folks. I positively do. I wonder if they need an ‘old guy’ to hang around and polish things…

Now if only I had a cabin in the woods with 20 acres of trees… Though I refuse to grow a beard or get a body piercing.
A tatoo, maybe… 9-)

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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32 Responses to DIY Gasoline and Diesel from Wood and Trash

  1. Pingback: Things you absolutely have to try some day « The end of civilization

  2. pascvaks says:

    As I recall, some girl named Necessity was the mother of some kid named Invention. Can’t remember who the father was.

  3. R. de Haan says:

    Very nice, just for the record some more links:

    FEMA 2e edition

    The Low Tech Magazine (translate with Google or watch the pictures)

    I really hope we will never arrive in a situation where we need this low tech technologies but I really enjoyed the video of the piercing team.

    Thanks E. M

  4. R. de Haan says:

    Not the most clever guy on the block when he uses the
    vacuum cleaner but his application works.

  5. tarpon says:

    The University of Texas in 2009 built a pilot refinery using coal as the feedstock. Gasoline or diesel was refined from coal at under $30 a barrel oil equivalent, according to their study.

    The study was done for the Canadian government … The USA has 30% of the world’s coal. The Saudi Arabia of coal … LOL … is concerned about energy independence.

    BTW: The process was invented in the 1920s, and was used during WWII by the Germans and Japanese.

    You may wonder why!!!

  6. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Viewed the site and watched the video. These guys have advanced quite a lot in the last year. More toys to think about. All it takes is money. That control mother board looks very interesting. The gas to fuel needs more investigation.
    They may need an IT guy or maybe a smith.

    “Though I refuse to grow a beard or get a body piercing.
    A tatoo, maybe… 9-)” EM

    While I don’t care for piercings and tatoos, a beard might be an improvement. ;-) gives you gravitas, and it does not have to be permenant. Though I’ve had mine since 69. pg

  7. Jason Calley says:

    Oooohhhh! Neat info! I have a couple of books with info on wood pyrolysis and wood gas, aka, city gas, producer gas, etc., but I was not aware of the gekgasifier people, nor the lowtech magazine folk. While a home made design using galvanized trash cans would be possible, (no new tech there), I have also wondered to myself for the last few years on whether one could make a small gasifier using an old microwave oven to heat the wood. Or at least use the guts of a microwave melded on to something more robust. The plus is that you have instant, and relatively penetrating heating. Maybe run the gas output by a heated conventional electric stove element for the final breakdown of the longer chain goop in the gas. Or maybe get an old self cleaning electric stove, load a container of chips into the oven and put it on “self clean”. That will heat up enough to carbonize wood. Now, of course one wonders whether the genset running off the gas would produce enough output to power the stove — but my gut feeling is “Sure! Enough and some left over!” I can see it now. Twice a week, somewhere in the woods, off grid, crank up the gasifier and the battery charger for the old fork lift batteries. Maybe not luxury, but certainly civilization.

    Dang…. too many ideas, too many projects possible. I suspect that insatiable curiosity is the most pleasant of all curses.

  8. R. de Haan says:

    As I recall, some girl named Necessity was the mother of some kid named Invention. Can’t remember who the father was.

    The father was named Crises.

  9. PaulID says:

    Once again you have expanded my horizons I thank you again. (man I am starting to sound a little…..nvrmnd)

  10. R. Shearer says:

    I’m not sure I would trust my life to a $10 CO detector.

    Anyway, SSL (Sasol) is the most successful company using FT synthesis. In the US there is SYNM and RTK. Shell (RDS) also has a couple of operating plants.

  11. PaulID says:

    nope the father of invention is McGuyver.

  12. Another Ian says:

    “R. de Haan
    As I recall, some girl named Necessity was the mother of some kid named Invention. Can’t remember who the father was.

    The father was named Crises.”

    Off thread so snipable

    A friend had it that “Necessity was the mother of invention and the father of half-castes”

  13. P.G. Sharrow says:

    McGuyver is a Hollywood phony, nothing real there. When I am accused of being a “McGuyver” I have to point out that I create real things without a “props” team, just my trusty junk yard. More like “Gyro Gearlose” ;-) pg

  14. E.M.Smith says:

    @R. Shearer: I own stock in both RTK and SYNM. SYMX is in the same business IIRC. I’ve owned SSL from time to time. Havn’t since they started having their government interested in ‘wealth redistribution’.

    Oh, and I’d trust that big open door more than the detector…

    @Jason Calley: Wood doesn’t absorb microwaves very well… works better for Iron.

    For wood cabonizing, the ‘easy way’ is a metal retort where the gasses are sent to a burner under the retort. One burner externally fueled is run to get it started, then the distillation products kick in and that burner takes it from there to completion.

    Alternatively you can just put a metal can full of wood and with a small pipe to let the gasses out into a fireplace / coal bed. Route the pipe into the fire / bed so the gases burn and air does not get back up the pipe. Wait. It forms char in the can.

    Other method: You have a wood gas generator with that hot coal / char bed in it. The outside gets rather hot. Wrap a second layer around it that is filled with wood chips. The generator will get hot enough to char that wood. Just have a pipe to where you can use some methanol et. al. gasses / flame… When done, move the car into the generator for the next batch. (in the better systems this process is integrated into ‘zones’ of combustion inside the generator so no physical separation is needed…)

    There was an old Swedish design (that I’ve carefully saved somewhere that I can’t find right now…) that used a pipe into the middle of the wood that delivered air out the end and sucked the product back coaxially on the outside IIRC so the entire air region was bounded in the center of the mass of wood. It was mounted in a diaphram from the top such that variation of the throtle would jiggle it and settle the ash. Astoundingly well thought out using natural processes to make everthing ‘just work’. The central hot spot only ever got char, the wood ‘self distilling’ in the outer zone and the gasses being consumed before ever reaching the extraction zone…

    Though I did find this interesting paper that has plans on how to make a wood gas camp stove (among other things)

    Click to access Wood%20Gasification%20(final).pdf

    it looks like it’s made from old soup cans…

    There is a fascinating gallery of old cars and new running on wood here:

    And these folks are selling turnkey systems for about $3k to $4k each ($4k includes the electric generator…)

    but I’m not remembering the key phrase that pulls up that 1970s vintage small efficient elegant design… Ah, well.

    @P.G. Sharrow: Um, because I’ve tried a couple of times and it’s just not right on me… Too “straggly around the sides”… I’m just not suited to the “Unibomber” look, and the goatee makes me look like an evil old goat (and while that may or may not be accurate it’s not what the spouse wants ;-)

    BTW, these things will work on coal, too. There are several small coal deposits in California, none mined as they are too small to be worth it, often at or near the surface. I’ve sometimes thought it would be fun to buy some ‘crap’ acres of wooded ‘useless’ hills that just happened to have a coal seam in it that was “useless” as it was too small to use a house sized shovel on it …


    The stuff my nighmares are made of. It’s been shown a dozen times that this can be done at highly advantageous rates. Yet it gets killed somewhere between licensing and sales… I’d love to know who bought whom…

    @R. de Haan:

    Nice. From back in the day when the Dept. of Energy was interested in making energy rather than abolishing it…

    And knew what a ‘fuel emergency’ would mean. I especially like the tractor picture…

  15. j ferguson says:

    Dammit. I have a clear memory of a short book addressed to the activities of two Danes assigned to the operation of a “producer gas” 2 1/2 ton truck (my guess from the photos). It had a very large vertical cylinder on one side just aft of the shotgun seat and a lot of visible plumbing. It’s operation was described in detail and there was a sketched flow diagram.

    It was 1944 or later. In Jutland. They were working unwillingly for you know who and they hated the thing, but they both realized that things could be worse. The problem as I remember it was that it didn’t go very far on a load of wood. They started out with a supply from the dispatching entity (fancy for I can’t remember who) and ran out after about 60 miles. They then had to decide whether it was better to do short legs, burning what they could cut down or appropriate, or cut more and carry it in back until needed. This got to be a major point of discussion (argument).

    The “dammit” above is because I have such a clear recollection of the story and pictures – drawings too and I can’t begin to remember when or where I saw it. I’ve rummaged through old directories back to 1995 but can’t find it.

    I tend to think that wood-burners are not a great idea given how quickly they were retired when gas returned in Europe after the war.

    While I’m at it. The first SWMBO used to drag me to environmental advocacy sessions. At one such, the issue of diesel fumes was being murmured about. Someone suggested that maybe we should go back to steam given that steam engines ran on water and water was certainly very clean. There were maybe 50 people in attendance, about a third of them there to preserve their marriages as was I. There was a very brief pause in the proceedings and I quickly did a rolling eyes check. All the men and maybe half the women. No-one commented and we went on to other things.

    That there was no quick retort (the verbal kind) I think reflected well on this group. Later, though they went on to supporting a law banning trucks from the streets of Saint Louis and I was able to get out of any further attendance.

  16. dearieme says:

    The law on storing petrol here in Britain make do-it-yourself gasoline unattractive. But do-it-yourself diesel is fine: you can make 2500 litres each per annum without the need to pay duty on it.

  17. P.G. Sharrow says:

    If you really want to get into gasifiers start here:

    This guy has a good site and a good list of links. pg

  18. E.M.Smith says:

    @j ferguson:

    Wood “has issues”. First off, you get about 1/2 power (and thus reduced top speed too) from the engine. Second, the fuel, as noted, doesn’t get you very far. Third, plan to start warming it up about 1/2 hour before you go somwhere. And fourth, if run on wood, there a load of creosote you have clean out of all over inside and filter. Most folks would turn the wood to charcoal in another device. That gave more miles, less cleaning, etc. But takes another device… that makes creosote…


    I’ve made home made bio-diesel. It’s not hard at all. (that part above about ‘like things I do”…) The problem is that in the USA the feedstock is more expensive than Diesel OR if you use used cooking oil, a smelly mess to handle.

    So I’ve done it just to assure I knew what to do “for that day”, but I’d not want to do it on a regular basis.

    What I find attractive about this “DIY FT Diesel” is that it uses bio-trash. Every week the city picks up tons of it from the streets. I have an effectively infinite free supply if I want it. And I don’t have to worry about creosote in the air intake of my Mercedes, nor lugging a ton of hot retorts around just to go the the grocers…

    Another thing that caught my ear was that 250 C reaction temperature. That’s 482 F. So I’m pondering the idea of an electric oven (from a remodel discard) and a fatter shorter reaction column. That is really just not all that hard a temperature to reach these days.

    So pack an electric oven with a tubby pressure vessel of magnetite or whatever catalyst ( Iron, Nickle, and Cobalt are the most common), set the oven to “broil”, and go start the yard trimmings on bake in the gassifier. Whole thing would fit easily on my patio near the old brick BBQ that I never use…

    1 gallon a day would be about 350 a year (holidays ;-) and that would get me about 8000 miles a year which is about what I drive…

    Set the gallon in the fridge / freezer to de-wax it if desired.

    Cook it less long for ‘winter’ grades with shorter chains.

    It would just be very easy to do.

    Diesel here is approaching $4 / gallon, so that’s about $1400 a year. I’d put payback at about 3 years even if I bought the gasifier pre-made. Even if it takex 10 gallons of wood per gallon of Diesel, that’s not much to load each day nor to pick up for free on trash day…

  19. P.G. Sharrow says:

    I study this problem back in the 70s. Liquid fuels is well worth the trouble. Fuel creation must be stationary. On the farm that meant alcohol and sunflower oil for liquid fuels. Mobil machines require liquid fuels.
    The cracking and reformation is exothermic and only need startup heat but high pressures. The vidio clip had almost no information other then the use of treated magnatite catalyst. Oh well need more study. :-( pg

  20. E.M.Smith says:

    @P.G. Sharrow:

    The “oven” idea is just as it has a built in thermostat so once the thing gets ‘cooking’ I don’t need to have a lot of process controls on it. Also it is well insulated so will retain the process heat (note in the video they said small scale needs the heat tape run continuously sometimes to offset heat losses… I presume from the long thin structure with mediocre insulation wrap.

    It has the added cost that you need to use more expensive pipes and fittings to get the pressure vessle built so it fits in the oven…

    Oh, and you can trade heat for pressure (wiithin bounds).

    There are a half dozen catalysts, some proprietary. Lots to choose from. Zeolites (like in your water softener) can be used to make alcohol from natural gas… It’s a ‘black art’ to make just the right zeolight… Google “molecular sieve”…

    That’s why most folks use the Fe Ni Co Cr family of metals. Much easier. IIRC, most of the treatment is increasing surface area and “activating” via cleaning / etching. Perhaps milling and an acid bath… (rampant speculation).

    Though the folks above seem more fond of a oxy torch:

    I was also able to find a whole pile of stainless steel lathe chips of a uniform size for this project. They are beautiful, sharp metal chips from a lathe about 1.25 mm in length. The interest in starting with stainless steel is that it has about 10% chromium in it. Some articles have suggested (ie: Nature ) that chromium can actually be a promoter of iron FT catalyst because chromium oxide has a very high tendency in its adsorption of hydrogen. To oxidize the stainless steel metal, I used an oxy-acetylene cutting torch down in the shop. It was adjusted for an oxygen rich flame to melt and oxidize the chips and held about 2 inches from the pile of chips. This actually worked quite well. Some clumps were created, so I just chopped them up with a mallet. I was able to fire them evenly and it was common to observe a bubbling effect on the surface creating micro pores. This is only better for catalyst surface area!

  21. jim mason says:

    hey, this is the guy who lit the vacuum cleaner on fire in the video. also the one to blame for the general gasifier show above. yes, it is somewhat like early linux or homebrew computer club. just now with metal and fire.

    mr smith, it seems you are on the peninsula. you and any others local in the bay area are welcome to come over to the shop and poke around any time you want. we’re here 7 days usually. if any of you want to build a kit, you are welcome to do so here too. we have lots of welders.

    we hold workshops on all this every few months. the next one will likely be late june.

    the FT rig is exciting in principle, difficult to make work in specifics. lots to go wrong with no work or large explosion results. it is a much higher bar then making biodiesel.

    in time we hope to make it reasonable for small scale but we’re a long ways from that at the moment.

    thank you again for all the interesting comments above.

    jim mason
    all power labs / gek gasifier

  22. pascvaks says:

    One day soon (everybody dreams y’know) homes will have independent sewage (plus garbage disposal and bath water) treatment systems the size of a bread box/cooker.
    The water supply system will be a closed re-cycle process too. With rainwater and snow added to make up for evaporation. Everything very well insolated of course.
    And (I’m on a roll) independent power (nuc, chem, thermo, solar, all in one other little breadbox).
    The whole idea of course is to get rid of all these unsightly wood and concrete telephone and power polls. It’s a Beautification thing.
    Of course it took a while for H.G.Wells to see his imaginationeering come true too. But it WILL happen!! (If we can solve this little federal, state, local budget problem we have at the moment; and the Great Depression of the Twenty Teens ain’t toooooo bad;-)

  23. pascvaks says:

    PS: ((Forgot the most important part)) The ‘Flux Capacitor’ for transportation — it’s coming. True, no one knows when it will get here, but it’s coming. No bout a’doubt it.

  24. E.M.Smith says:


    Um… Too late:

    You can buy one if you want. They have been built all over the world for a couple of decades now:

    I’ll have to get back to you on the “Flux Capacitor” thing… I’ve still got a few bugs to work out ;-)

  25. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Interesting thread from the GEK site on gas to liquid effort.

    a broader view on the information in the video above. They are just at the beginning of this effort. Anyone out there with broad organic chemistry knowlogy? pg

  26. E.M.Smith says:

    Looks like you need a login to make comments on the GEK forum… so I’ll put my comments here (per that thread linked to by P.G. Sharrow above).

    There is speculation about using glycerol in some way. They easy way to do this (done by oil companies today) is to “hydrogenate” it. It turns into propane. I don’t know what pressure / temp / catalyst is used, but you have a H2 source, all you need is a standard “hydrotreater” and your glycerine becomes propane… a very usefull stuff.

    There is also a question about using syngas for making some other materials: It’s named syngas because it is used in ALL KINDS of organic synthesis. Once you’ve got an alcohol you can pretty much make anything you want out of it.

    Per wax formation: I’d use the wax to make candles, but that’s just me ;-) Making a ‘cat cracker’ would not be particularly easy, but that’s what refineries do. IMHO, the ideal state would be to have a heat exchanger and cycle the ‘product’ through a cool side chamber. As the chain length builds, it will condense on the cool side short of becoming a long chain wax. The non-condensed gets sent back through the heat exchanger to keep on working. Well insulated, a counter current heat exchanger like that will not lose much heat… By adjusting the temp in the condenser, you ought to be able to tune it for any length from Propane to Wax… (assuming you don’t want to go cryogenic and make ethane… )

    A general comment on catalysts:

    While I think it’s kind of cool to make a catalyst via lathe turnings and a blowtorch… It’s likely that you can make a far better and more controlled / finer particle catalyst via precipitation chemically. I remember doing an iron oxide precipitation from Iron Chloride IIRC. Quick. Easy. Nearly molecular sized dust…

    @jim mason:

    I’d love to visit and I’ll take you up on the offer. I’m more toward Sunnyvale than “on the peninsula” but I run up that way often. I’m an OK welder, but it’s been a few years. I’d need to mess up a test piece or two to get the Skilz back before doing a real workpiece.

    FWIW, I’ve also made a couple of kinds of propellants and explosives (speaking of “difficult to make work in specifics. lots to go wrong with no work or large explosion results”…) along with being a computer geek and building a computer ‘from scratch’ – meaning ICs and boards – back in ‘the day’. I’ve had 18 units of inorganic Chem and about a years worth of organic (don’t remember exactly how many units) so I’m pretty clear on how hard it is to do what you are trying to do. Everything from hydrogen embrittlement of the pipes / reactor to ‘unexpected’ reaction side chains to thermal cycle problems on the parts.

    At any rate, that’s why I’m rooting for you. Because if you succeed at a fairly hard task, it’s a major game changer. “Fuel to the people” ;-)

    Basically, once it’s all worked out, it would be fairly easy to operate. But it’s that “working it out’ part that’s the hard bit…


    Drat! Someone else beat me to it ;-)

  27. David says:

    What do you guys know about spirulina and or alge to liquid fuel?

  28. E.M.Smith says:


    Fair amount. Spirulina is a bit better used as food. Other algae make more oil.

    Raised in a nitrogen deficient CO2 rich environment, the CO2 gets stored for ‘later’ by the algae as plant oil. Up to 50% by weight for some species under ideal conditions. Closer to 25% more of the time.

    The oil is extracted by any of several means (“blender”, followed by ‘settling’ is one way). Once you have a plant oil you can run it directly in a Lister type Diesel, you can blend about 5% to 10% into regular Diesel, or you can turn it into “bio-diesel” via a methanol transesterification ( 1% lye as catalyst, 19% methanol, plant oil; stir, let sit a few hours at warm room temp, suck off the fuel phase and recover the lye for reuse, dispose of the glycerine or use in making soap)

    You can take the non-oil parts and ferment them to get alcohols.

    You can take the whole thing and just run it into a pyrolysis reactor to make a synthetic crude oil.

    Or, my favorite, you can dry it to an ultra fine powder with the exhaust heat of a Diesel generator, and then feed the dust in the air intake as a ‘co-fuel’ for the generator using the Diesel oil like a ‘spark plug’ to ignite the dust… but that’s not really a liquid fuel, though dust can be a fluid…

    So what did you want to know?

  29. George says:

    That logo on the shirt of the guy on the video looks like a NIMBY logo. NIMBY is a group up in Oakland that is absolutely awesome. Want to learn to blow glass or weld or blacksmith ;)? Go to NIMBY.

    They are a pretty cool supporter of “fire arts”, too. There is a group in San Francisco called The Flaming Lotus Girls that build some absolutely wonderful pieces that have toured the world. They do a lot with NIMBY from time to time.

    E.M. Smith: Have you ever been to Burning Man? I would bet you would get a real kick out of seeing some of the stuff out there.

    There is also a place called The Shipyard over in Berkeley where a fellow named Jim Mason is doing a lot of gasification work. Oh, heh, after reading my email, I notice that it is Jim’s Shipyard IS “ALL power labs!”

    They are looking for an engineer:

    ALL Power Labs / GEK Gasifier is looking for a contract engineer to bring process control electronics and related wiring to a ready-to-manufacture state. These electronics relate to a sensing and automation system for a small-scale biomass gasification alt energy generator. More information on the product is here:

    This contract needs to start the week of 2/21/11. It is likely a month gig. Pay is negotiable and related to your abilities.

    Here’s the details:

    We long ago optimized the micro processor board, as well as the enclosure which houses all the associated power components and wire landing. See here: .

    We’re now facing a large wiring harness and wire connection problem. Making all this by hand in house is no longer possible. We can’t make them fast enough or with adequate efficiency. We need the wiring harness design to be optimized for manufacturability and out-of-house
    production initiated quickly.

    You can get on their mailing list at:

    Actually, here is a walkabout of The Shipyard

  30. E.M.Smith says:


    I’ve wanted to go to BMan for about 2 or 3 decades now. Never quite made it back when it was essentially free. Last time I looked, it was several hundred dollars to live in your own tent in a patch of desert…. As much as I think it would be “way cool”; I couldn’t justify that (and the couple of hundred more it would take to get ready and get there… All up over $500 IIRC my plans)

    So yeah. Cool, fun. Lots of interesting stuff. If I had a few kilobucks laying around and nothing to do with it, I’d make a ‘trivial gasifier’ for the Benz and drive it up on wood chips…

    but I don’t. So I don’t.

    Tyrany of logistics… When you have a job and money, you don’t have the time. When you are unemployed and have the time, no money to spare…

  31. George says:

    NIMBY’s website:

    Also there is a place in Meno Park called Tech Shop if you need to work on some special project and need special tools, membership there is pricey, though.

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