Wood gas cars might be bizarrely antiquated and, as of now, an ecological and technological failure in North Korea. But, there is a scientific method to the hilarious North Korean wood gas madness., and it’s called the Fischer-Tropsch process of energy conversion.
North Korea has experienced extraordinary floods, famines and bushfires (many caused by drooping aluminum power lines setting fire to trees). North Korea is also afflicted by being downwind and close to China, thereby experiencing high levels of acid rain; and by climate change that may aggravate already extreme weather on the peninsula. But the bulk of the environmental losses and vulnerability experienced by North Koreans derives from the disastrous state of its economy and the mass poverty of the population, the shriveled status of its administrative and institutional capacities, the high levels of tension created by the nuclear issue and the continuing division of the Korean Peninsula.
One of the most acute environmental problems in North Korea is deforestation. This problem has a long history, stretching back to over-cutting by Japanese colonialists, the impact of the Korean War and poor reforestation practices by North Korean agencies. The reforestation effort relied on mobilized adult and youth mass labor units working with simple tools. Specialized nurseries and well-trained foresters grew seedlings, but without good fertilizer and seed stock, the success rate was small, especially on steep, north-facing slopes.
These basic problems were made worse by land-use decisions in the early and mid-1990s when food shortages led authorities to direct farmers to cultivate steep slopes, to convert forested areas into agriculture, and in some cases, to actually re-engineer landscapes. When unprecedented floods hit North Korea, much of the topsoil in these areas was washed downstream (also thereby silting up many of the run-of-the-river hydro-electric dams in North Korea).
Why does the area and status of North Korea’s forests matter? First, forests have essential environmental functions. These include maintenance of watersheds by capturing, slowing and cleansing rainwater for downstream use, including human drinking water, irrigation, and industry; provision of habitat for most of the wild animals and plants that survive in North Korea; supply of key ingredients of traditional medicines, all the more essential at a time when many man-made pharmaceuticals are unavailable in North Korean clinics and hospitals; and as a source of substantial supplementary food scavenged by adjacent rural populations who have access to forests (unlike rice growing areas in the southern and coastal areas).
Second, rural populations use forests for wood fuels that substitute for coal and agricultural wastes formerly used for heating, cooking, and fertilizer, but that are now diverted to survival energy needs. Finally, forested mountains are culturally important to Koreans, embodying the spirit of the Korean soul. Not only has the total forested area fallen by roughly one-third over 15 years leaving denuded and poor quality agricultural land in its stead, but much of the remaining forest is also degraded by these multiple uses.
It’s the wood fuels issue where North Korea might have failed demonstrably, yet ironically still offer alternative visions for energy, via negativa. For a start, North Korea is not the only country to deploy the Fischer-Tropsch process for energy conversion of coal, wood, and biomass, and in the Second World War, both Allied, including the U.S., and Nazi-controlled countries used wood gas cars.
In the 1920s, German engineer Georges Imbert developed a wood gas generator for mobile use. The gases were cleaned and dried and then fed into the vehicle’s combustion engine, which barely needs to be adapted. The Imbert generator was mass produced from 1931 on. At the end of the 1930s, about 9,000 wood gas vehicles were in use, almost exclusively in Europe.
The technology became commonplace in many European countries during the Second World War, as a consequence of the rationing of fossil fuels. In Germany alone, around 500,000 producer gas vehicles were in operation by the end of the war.
A network of some 3,000 “petrol stations” was set up, where drivers could stock up on firewood. Not only private cars but also trucks, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships and trains were equipped with a wood gasification unit. Some tanks were driven on wood gas, too, but for military use the Germans preferred the production of liquid synthetic fuels (made out of wood or coal).
In 1942 (when the technology had not yet reached the height of its popularity), there were about 73,000 producer gas vehicles in Sweden, 65,000 in France, 10,000 in Denmark, 9,000 in both Austria and Norway, and almost 8,000 in Switzerland. Finland had 43,000 “woodmobiles” in 1944, of which 30,000 were buses and trucks, 7,000 private vehicles, 4,000 tractors and 600 boats.
Woodmobiles also appeared in the US, Asia and, particularly, Australia, which had 72,000 vehicles running on woodgas (source). Altogether, more than one million producer gas vehicles were used during World War Two.
After the war, with gasoline once again available, the technology fell into oblivion almost instantaneously. At the beginning of the 1950s, the then West-Germany only had some 20,000 woodmobiles left.
Kris de Decker goes on to review recent experiments in improving the efficiency and practicality of the Fischer-Tropsch process, even if the results appear quite humorous. And, David Wogan even seems to think North Korea might yet find ways to use coal and wood, to synthesize fuel, I assume, with a lot of foreign scientific collaboration. That undermines the entire notion of self-sufficiency which drives the use of wood gas burners in North Korea. But then, the Fischer-Tropsch process always had a burnished international, scientific pedigree that can survive Nazis and North Koreans. Limiting fuel consumption to the exigencies of the terran environment might be constrictive, but also prompt innovation. The North Koreans have experienced the first without any contribution to the latter.