Water or Dust May Run Our Cars
Wood, Coal, and Corn Are Other New and Strange Gasoline Substitutes
By JOHN E. LODGE .
AN AUTOMOBILE that burns wood instead of gasoline, one of the strange type recently designed by the French inventor Imbert, has just been purchased by the U. S. Bureau of Standards in Washington, D. C. This remarkable car, which runs on the coal-gas produced in its own woodor coal-burning furnace, represents one of many attempts that engineers and chemists are making to provide new motor fuels against a predicted future shortage of gasoline.
Already French scientists have produced an electric car that runs more than 900 miles without recharging; but though electric and steam power may remain to fall back on in case of need, many scientists declare this will not be necessary, and that natural or synthetic fuels will make man independent of the gasoline supply. Wood, coal, vegetable oils, ether, and even corn, water, molasses, and grain dust are possible sources for substitute automobile fuels.
SCIENCE, in attacking the problem, is following three separate lines of research. First, to produce directly an inflammable gas to be mixed with air and exploded in the cylinders. Second, to manufacture a cheap liquid fuel that, like gasoline, can be gasified to form with air an explosive mixture. Third, to use a fine, inflammable, solid dust suspended in air to form an explosive mixture.
Inflammable gas as a fuel for internal combustion engines is not new. Stationary motors have been run on gas. In fact, during the war, when gasoline had to be conserved for airplane use, London omnibuses were run on illuminating gas, carried in huge rubber bags on the tops of the vehicles. Only lately has it been thought feasible for a moving automobile to carry its own coal-gas generating plant. One of the new wood-burning cars, carrying fourteen persons, not long ago took its passengers for a 3200 mile tour of France at a fuel cost of $14.50, against $120 for the same mileage on gasoline.
Blue water gas, a form of “producer gas” made by blowing steam over the incandescent bed of a coal fire, also has been tried. Interesting experiments have been made by a British manufacturer with a truck burning coal, charcoal, corn, or, in fact, any material rich in carbon. Chemists tell us that this blue water gas consists of a mixture of hydrogen and the inflammable and poisonous gas, carbon monoxide. Coal gas is mostly hydrogen.
Now another French scientist, Prof. Charles Henry, announces that he has made hydrogen for fuel from water vapor with the aid of a secret catalyst—one of those strange chemicals that make a reaction take place without itself taking part in it or being used up. The temperature he uses is that of the gas range or coal furnace in your home. It is possible that this process will make it practicable for you to stop your car at the filling station of the future and call for “five gallons of water” instead of gas.
But even if all these discoveries should come to naught, scientists have liquid fuels lo fall back on. Alcohol-burning engines have been made. While alcohol from wood is at present expensive, other sources may reduce its price. Methanol, a recently developed German fuel substitute, is a “wood alcohol” produced from coal and water. In France, ethyl alcohol, the potable variety, has been synthesized for fuel. Molasses is another possible source. A Russian, M. Makhonine, reports a fuel from electrically heated vegetable oil.
Use of ether as a motor fuel has been advocated. This compound has the advantage of not carbonizing the cylinders. All of its combustion products are gases, blown away through the exhaust.
Dust has been tried as fuel in a fascinating series of experiments. In the last issue of POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY, the Department of Agriculture’s experimental cornstarch motor was described. Grain dust is exploded as fuel in this strange machine. Coal dust has also been employed with some success in Germany, using the Diesel engine.
It seems to be only a question of time before one of these many processes will succeed on a commercial scale.
GASOLINE, which is chemically a carbon-hydrogen compound, has been synthesized some time since by Prof. Franz Fischer, director of the Institute of Coal Research in Germany, who combined the hydrogen and carbon of coal-derived water gas under tremendous heat and pressure. Now he announces a startling improvement in which these factors are no longer necessary. A new catalyst obtains the same results. A pleasant-smelling gasoline, clear as water and possessing valuable antiknock properties, is obtained. Another German, Dr. Bergius of Heidelberg, has combined compressed hydrogen directly with coal paste to make gasoline.