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Rick Bates stands next to his wood-powered truck
Rick Bates stands next to his wood-powered truck

Fill 'er up - with wood

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For just about everybody who drives, filling up the tank is one of those things you just have to do. But not Rick Bates. His pick up truck runs on wood.

So, instead of stopping at the corner gas station, Bates just walks into the woods behind his house and chops down the fuel he needs. And the burning branches smell like a campfire.

Using trees instead of gasoline for internal combustion isn't a new idea, but, as Jonathan Brown reports, it's gaining popularity--especially here in the woodsy North Country.

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Bates and a couple of local mechanics are working under the hood of his ’69 Chevy pick up. To run on wood, the truck’s bed is filled with a Rube Goldberg system of pipes connecting a big barrel to what looks like a cylindrical wood stove.

"It’s actually an old water heater."

So, the old hot-water heater is sitting in the middle of the bed. It’s now the furnace where Bates throws the wood and lights it up.

"The fire burns, the engine vacuum draws the smoke out through the bottom, which is different than the way a fire normally burns. We do that to try to reduce the amount of tar that gets to the engine. Then the smoke goes through that pipe into the fence-like radiator over on the other side. That’s a radiator?  Yeah, that big thing is a radiator."

It looks like the big gates ranchers use on livestock pens. It’s huge, and it needs to be. This is where the smoke from the furnace cools and condenses.

"It goes into that 55 gallon drum which is basically filled up with hay. It’s a hay filter. And the smoke comes out this pipe here and goes underneath the truck and into the engine. And so the engine basically burns the smoke."

The smoke contains carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The engine in this pick up burns these gases to make energy. Put another way, this truck runs on emissions. It does emit some exhaust, but Bates says it’s less than the amount coming out of a car using gasoline or diesel.

And, he’s quick to point out that when he needs to fill ’er up, he can always cut down, and then plant, more trees—making his fuel renewable, unlike oil and gas. For these reasons, Bates insists his truck is simply greener than most of the vehicles now on the road.

"How much wood does it use? I mean, how many miles to the tree do you get? You get about… A pound of wood equals one mile. So, you have an armload of wood like this… weighs about 20 pounds? You go about 20 miles."

Bates took on this project as part of his doctoral thesis. He says it took him three years to get his truck running on wood. He’ll get his Ph.D. soon from the SUNY forestry college in Syracuse. Bill Olsen has a slightly different perspective on these vehicles.

"It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure."

He lives in rural St Lawrence County and describes himself as a "backyard tinkerer."

"If you just want to get out of your house in the morning and turn the key and start the motor it’s definitely not going to happen. But if you don’t mind taking some extra time and fiddling with things to get it working right, it’s definitely workable."

He’s given presentations on alternate fuel vehicles. Bio-fuels, like ethanol, first drew him to the idea. But he says wood requires less work and he’s hearing from more and more people interested in giving it a try.

"It just seemed easier to cut wood in the back yard than to grow crops to produce oil to then turn into a fuel. And we have a lot of woods around here, so it just seemed… seems perfect."

Olsen’s already had some success making a wood-powered wood-chipper.

"Yeah, it produces fuel for itself and produces power. The extra energy it makes produces electricity. That you could use in your house, say. Exactly, yeah, for off-gridders. That kind of thing. Charging up battery banks."

He’s now working on his own wood-fired truck that he plans to use for local trips. Both Olsen and Rick Bates say it’s not expensive to make the change. Bates says it cost him about a hundred dollars to convert his ’69 Chevy to wood power. And it can still run on gasoline. He can choose his fuel simply by flicking a switch under the dash.

On his test drive from Syracuse to Massena—more than 320 miles roundtrip—Bates says he used hundreds of pounds of wood and just a single gallon of gas. And, he says, it was a nice ride.

"It drives, actually, smoother than with gasoline but it doesn’t have as much power."

A small concession, he says, for being able to drive past the gas pumps—and to drive a truck that always smells like a campfire.

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