Wood Gasifier … I am Starting to Build It

On a couple of occasions I’ve talked about wood gasification as both a heat source and for electrical power generation (here and here).

On our recent road trip across North America I finally took action and purchased a GEK III (a kit of steel parts and accessories) as the basis for our wood gasifier.  I bought the kit from All Power Labs in Berkley, California on our way back home, and we hauled two steel barrels of parts (a 30 gallon drum strapped to the back of the van and a 16 gallon drum buried in the back) for the rest of the trip.

We were concerned about crossing the border with the kit; we declared it as a wood gasifier and were sent on our way with no problems or additional paper work.  We did some research on the possible duty before we crossed and had concluded that the kit was duty free … nice to have that confirmed at the border!

Once we got the kit home the two drums of parts sat in the corner of the shop for over a month.  A few days ago I finally unpacked the two barrels … there are a lot of parts!  I purchased a GEK III V4.3, the most recent version that All Power Labs is building.  The fabrication/assembly instructions for these kits are on the internet.  As I unpacked I compared the parts in the barrel with a video from All Power Labs; the parts in the smaller barrel matched what was shown in the video, but the steel parts in the larger barrel were different in a few  cases … right now I am assuming that some changes to the parts have been made since the video was made.

After some emails with Julia Hasty (a technical specialist at All Power Labs), these are the instructions I am using for my project:

Based on the fabrication directions the first job I started was welding the gas cowling.  I suppose now would be a good time to admit that my welding skills are fairly basic … I’ve stick welded as part of running my business when a repair was required.  If the repair was too complicated or demanding (stainless, aluminum, cast …) I took the part into a welding shop.  So, this is the most challenging welding job I’ve taken on, and it is the first time I’ve used a MIG welder.  I picked up the welder second hand from a neighbour; it is a 250 amp machine and I can now say it works!  I spent a few days playing with the welder before starting … practicing on 1/16″ steel.  MIG welding seems a lot easier than using a stick welder as long as you remember to turn the gas on … I spent a puzzling couple of minutes trying to figure out why the welds were suddenly crappy … had to grind them off and start over!  The stitch function does not work on this welder so I have been stitch welding manually … a little tedious but not the end of the world.
I pretty much followed the second fabrication video from All Power Labs for the steps outlined below.
I started by welding the studs for the 4 support legs of the gasifier into the holes provided in the cowling.  This job was pretty simple … although a little challenging to weld inside the cowling.  You may notice that one of the welds in the picture to the left goes off track … I discovered that my auto-darkening helmet can be adjusted based on the amperage being drawn by the welder.  Less amps means you can reduce the darkness level.  Until I figured that one out I could barely see anything but the arc while I was welding … it made it hard to stay on track!  I am now very happy with the automatic helmet, I was getting ready to go back to the old helmet I was used to up to that point.

I then fitted and tack welded the bottom plate of the cowling.  The hardest part of this job wasfitting the plate, after every weld I would re-adjust the clamp to make sure there were no gaps between the wall and plate.  After the bottom plate was tacked I then tack welded the top flange … again I adjusted the clamps after every tack to take the gaps out between the wall and flange.  I then tack welded the seam of the cowling.  I clamped the seam together as I tacked to keep the seam tight.


 I then welded the ash port, gas out and a third unidentified (see later) assembly; each assembly consists of a hanger and plate.  Welding these assemblies together was straight forward, but I did have

problems with the gas out assembly.  The hanger for this assembly was too small for its intended cut out in the plate, leaving an air gap between the plate and the hanger along two sides and along the seam of the hanger.  I had trouble welding the seam of the hanger due to the large gap … I was just blowing out the steel.  I solved this problem by welding a 1/4″ round filler piece inside the seam.  I am guessing there is a more elegant solution, but this worked for my skill level!  I am also assuming that this filler will not be a problem for gas flow down the road.

At this point I am a little stuck on how to proceed as the video does not exactly match my parts.  I am wondering about the following:

    1. The gas cowling wall piece does not have a large diameter hole for a 1.5″ weld coupler.  It does have a larger square cut out that fits the third unidentified assembly I welded above.  I am assuming that this square assembly is a replacement for the weld coupler.
    2. The gas out assembly does not have a hole drilled in its hanger piece as is shown in the video.  I think this is fine as the assembly instructions for the v4.3 GEK mention that the bung has been moved from the gas out assembly.
    3. There are two 3/4″ diameter holes that have not been dealt with in the gas cowling.  
the video shows welding a male nipple into one of these holes for the manometer.  It does not show anything for the other hole that I have been able to figure out.  I do not seem to have a male nipple in the plumbing parts bag.  I am assuming I weld two of the the weld couplers that fit this diameter over these holes.


I am going to watch the next fabrication videos and see if I can find the answers to these questions before I finish welding the gas cowling.


The WVO Conversion: Three Months Later

Just thought I would update how the van is doing on waste vegetable oil …

It has been about three months since we have completed the WVO conversion, and an educated guess would say that we have gone about 10,000 km on WVO since then.  Most of this mileage (8000km) was done on our cross country trip, so the vast majority of it is highway miles.

We did not have a lot of time to learn the quirks of running on WVO before we left for our trip, so we had some interesting experiences and a few tense moments between driver and navigator as a result!  All-in-all  our experience was positive; we did almost half the trip on WVO, and we had no mechanical problems with the van.  We found it harder to source WVO in the second half of the trip as we (mostly Sandra) had not planned this far ahead as we did not know exactly where we would be.  Many times we missed picking up WVO simply because it was difficult to keep in touch with people on the road and to line our route up with people’s schedules.

Our single largest WVO problem started fairly early in the trip and plagued us for the rest of it.  We found that when stopped and idling or slowing down on the highway (allowing the engine to drop below 1000 RPM) we would stall.  The van did not always stall when idling … it only happened after the van had been running for a while and usually after being on the highway for some time.  The first couple of times this happened imagine our surprise and consternation … traffic and stalling are not a good mix!  We were able to avoid this issue by only switching to WVO on the highway … this was very easy to do on a cross country road trip and meant that while in cities or on secondary roads we stayed on diesel.

I worked on this problem on the trip and was able to improve the situation (we no longer stalled when slowing down), but was not completely able to eliminate the stalling when idling issue.  During the trip I assumed we were dealing with fuel starvation … not enough WVO was making it to the injection pump so that over time the engine was being starved of fuel.  This did not really explain why the stalling was itermittent and seemed to happen only when the engine was idling.

My first step in trouble shooting this problem was to double check and tighten all of the WVO hoses and connections.  Most of the hose clamps needed to be tightened (not a surprise given the expansion/contraction caused by the hot/cold cycling of an engine).  This had no noticable effect on the problem.

I then switched from a non- looped to a looped return, assuming that the WVO was too viscous to be pumped fast enough … again this had no effect.

I changed the WVO filter at about 4500 km, guessing that the filter was plugged.  This did not make a noticable improvement and as far as I could tell the filter was quite clean.

I bumped the engine idle speed up to 800 RPMs (the recommended idle speed for a Delica diesel engine) from the approximately 600 RPMs it had been idling at.  Increasing the idle speed helped … the van no longer stalled when slowing down, only when sitting at an idle.  I did not increase the idle speed beyond 800 RPM as I did not want to have a high idle on diesel … assuming this would use more diesel.

I was not able to do too much more on the road as it was difficult to work on the van; not enough tools, and a motel parking lot is  not an ideal place to work!  Towards the very end of the trip (last couple of days of driving) we did notice our stalling issue get worse; it did not seem to matter if we were idling or not, and it was fairly obvious the van was not getting enough fuel on WVO.

When I got home I drove the van into the shop and the next day I got underneath it and looked around.  I found two locations where the fuel line leading to the injection pump had collapsed on itself, restricting the flow of WVO and explaining our most recent problem.  Both restrictions occurred where the line curved to change directions.  I did not think these bends were significant enough to do this, but obviously the combination of suction from the pump and the bend had collapsed the line.   This leads me to wonder if I got the best fuel hose for a diesel … a thicker, stronger wall would help prevent this problem.  Regardless, I re-routed and fixed the collapsed sections … I also switched back to a non-looped return.

I also decided to clean the injectors while I had it in the shop.  I had noticed more black smoke towards the end of the trip when starting and during quick accelerations … from what I had read fouled injectors (injector coking?) can contribute to this problem.  (WARNING: there are little parts in the injectors … do this work over a clean workbench unless you want to be searching a dirty shop floor for these tiny parts … maybe I should just clean the shop floor?)  From a visual inspection two of the fuel injectors were clean and two were fouled; I disassembled and cleaned all of the injectors (the Australian Delica website has an excellent PDF on doing this).

Happily, the van ran much  better after this tune up; less smoke, better sound and no idle issue on WVO!  Unhappily, after about another 500 km’s running on WVO the stalling on idle issue was back … this was not a happy moment.  I put the van back in the shop expecting to find another collapsed hose … only there wasn’t one.  So, I pulled and cleaned the injectors again … one of the injectors did look fouled, the balance looked fine.  I have gone from thinking that I had a fuel starvation issue to thinking that the WVO may not always be hot enough going into the injection pump.  This initially surprised me as I have a heated filter and an in-line heater right before the pump.  However, the heater is switched to shut off by a thermal sensor (attached to one of the injector feed lines) that shuts the heater off when the oil is hot enough.  When I think about my stalling problem it seems to occur at cooler outside temperatures (below freezing temperature) after the van has been running for a while (hot engine, hot coolant).  I am now wondering if the sensor is shutting the heater off too much in colder weather?  Causing fouled injectors and leading to the stalling problems?

Not sure if I have correctly identified the problem, but again after cleaning the injectors the van is running fine on WVO … no stalling at idle.  I have also disconnected the thermal sensor to see if this helps … we will see if I have solved this problem in another 500 km!

I was prepared to install an in-line fuel pump beside the WVO tank to push the oil to the injector pump (already purchased), but I have not done this yet as I am not convinced this is my problem.


First leg of the journey…

Since leaving Darfield on December 16th we have been SO busy!  It is now January 10th and we are in Orlando and I’m just finding time to think about posting.  Part of it was the novelty of being on a true “vacation” again and not wanting to do much else. Another part of our slowness to post was that we were both still working remotely and some of our time in the first two weeks was taken up with setting up our access while on the road. Thankfully Chris was able to do this, but it was an added responsibility that he fulfilled in evenings as his days were spent driving or monitoring the various systems on the van.

Better late than never…

The good news is, that overall, the van performed VERY well.  The stalling issues that presented itself prior to departure, never did get resolved and after a few stressful moments on on/off ramps on the various highways of Canada, Chris and I decided that as it was not a problem at highway speeds, we would use oil only when at those speeds (most of the time) and flip to diesel on on/off ramps and in city/town driving.

We started the trip with a full tank of oil, which we estimate to be 70 litres.  The original tank was 80 litres but to make it fit, Chris had a corner taken off and re-welded.  He has the final measurements of the tank, but again, simply hasn’t had the time to do the simple calculation. So for arguements sake, I’ll stick to 70 litres (although I suspect it is slightly more).

We also packed, on the back cargo basket, 10 jugs of oil.  Ed Beggs, of plantdrive, indicates these are 16-17 litres each. We pre-filtered this oil at home and filled the jugs to the top.  So, add another 170 litres to our departure stock.

Our traditional "good-bye" shot when we leave every three years or so!

The oil on the back weighed just under 500 pounds.  This, with all our gear inside the van, and in the skybox on top, made for a van that looked like it was ready for take-off!  I could definitely feel the weight and because of this, we were more cautious driving. 



Our "stash".

We arrived in Canmore AB the evening of the 16th. We experienced really BAD weather, so it took us longer to drive the 650 kms, mostly because I was driving. I’m one of THOSE drivers in a snowstorm; traffic lines up behind me.  Nevertheless we arrived at our first destination that night in 5 pieces (that would be all of us in one piece each!)

My Carleton journalism friend from way back (I mean WAAAYYY back) had her husband collect oil from the restaurants at Lake Louise, AB, where he works as head plumber on the maintenance team. Maureen and Randy’s efforts allowed us to replenish our tank…and more. In fact we left Canmore with the same amount of oil as we started…plus….three more 17 litre jugs!  Thanks so much Maurren and Randy!  It was also the first time I’d seen Maureen in 20+ years, so I’m thankful used oil brought us together! :)

Fortunately the weather on the 17th cooperated and we made good time across the prairies.  From my estimates, we can run 10km on a litre of oil. So, a tank of oil generally could take us 700 kms. We usually tried to re-fill the tank every 550 litres, as we weren’t sure initially how far the oil would take us.  As we progressed we started to push the limits of the tank.

Chris did start building an arduino sensor to allow us to sense the oil level, and he did hook it up.  It gave us relative readings and he never did find time to add the necessary programming to get it to give us more meaninful readings. 

Chris' arduino oil level indicator. Built from scratch using one of the last plastic containers in our house. A fitting use for it.

Refilling the tank was strange.  Typically we’d stop at a gas station to re-fill. This allowed all of us a bathroom break and to grab a drink if we needed it.  We’d park at the gas station, open up the back of the van, start unwinding our hoses from the pump and start pumping oil from the cargo basket.  At first, we used the charged motorcylce battery we brought, but when that ran down, we connected the pump to the van battery using our jumper cables. In the future we will run a cable underneath the van and have the clamps in the front of the engine compartment.  Feeding the cables through the van and out the window to the battery was not fun!

Stephen was a big help when we had to re-fuel.

Reaction to our re-filling was…non-existant!  Well, we did get some stares as people walked past us, but only ONE person asked us what we were doing and that was the tow truck driver who helped us unlock the van in Strathmore AB (Day 2) when Chris and I managed to lock three sets of keys in the van.

I was disappointed in the reaction. I love to talk about what we are doing. Chris is much lower-key about it, but I think it’s pretty cool, and in reverse I’d be all over it.

Oh well. :)

We were very surprised by how far we went on the initial stock of oil.  My estimate (I clocked the distances on the odometer when we switched to diesel for significant distances). We essentially went 3100 kms on 320 litres of oil.  During that time we filled the diesel tank once (from 1/4 tank to full) as start up and purge times did deplete the diesel.  This cost us about $60.

We ran on diesel from Sault Ste. Marie to just outside of London, ON, where Chris’ brother and sister-in-law live, and where we spent Christmas and a few days after.

Before pic of the Delica in Sudbury. Totally encrusted with Ontario salt.

Andrew and Nancy tried to line-up oil for us prior to us arriving.  Because it needed to settle before we could use it, they tried to find some mid-December.  They didn’t have much luck, being refused at one place outright. Andrew did, however, find somebody selling WVO for $0.89 per litre.

Ugh. Not free, but definitely better than diesel, which was running at a high of $1.42 per litre in northern Ontario.

After picture. :)

Chris did speak to the fellow who was selling WVO, but was put onto another company that collects and sells WVO in bulk (we’re talking in the 10,000 gallons at a time range).  He was intrigued by our oil trip and offered 45 gallons free.

We drove about 30 mins to his collection facility and after an initial reluctance to talk about the WVO business, he opened up and shared.  We had no idea that the industry existed like this, and that it was so competitive. Because the US government has mandated 2% “green” content in its deisel the best way to accomplish this is to convert WVO into biodeisel and add it.  This “green” deisel apparently sells big-time in Europe.  US companies need almost unlimited amounts ofWVO and this fellow, Scott, was collecting from all over Ontario and shipping tanker trucks of it.  Who knew?  Not us!

Because it is so competitive I can’t say Scott’s last name, or what his company is called.  What I can say is that we enjoyed our conversation with him, and were very grateful for the oil.  We ended up filling the tank and only 6 containers, with an eye to what our load would look like when we crossed the US border.

We left London on the 29th and headed into Toronto (on oil again) to visit with our Toronto friends and to show more of the city to the kids. Chris took us all through the University of Toronto and showed the kids where he took Fluid Dynamics when in the Engineering Physics program of the Engineering Department.  We ate on Bathurst Street and went to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) so Helen could see some original Group of Seven paintings (part of her learning plan for homeschooling).  We walked around downtown T.O. a lot.

We left Toronto on January 2nd, full of great memories of the Darbys, Yuyitungs and Hilliers and decided to cross at Kingston. We wanted to use up enough oil before crossing, so that we could disassemble our cargo basket and move the extra oil into the van.  I was worried our unorthodox load would slow us down with too many questions.  We crossed successfully with a full tank and three and half containers in the back of the van.  Most importantly, we left with a full bag of REAL bagels.  :)


We switched to diesel in New Jersey so that we didn’t stall on the nightmare roads that led into NYC and when we left on the 7th we turned back onto oil. We made it to Fayetteville, North Carolina before we moved back to deisel, making a whopping 4800kms of our 6,000 kms trip propelled on WVO.

We’re now in Orlando, and I’ve put feelers out for oil, to no avail. It is our intention to visit friends in San Francisco, so my next project is to line some up in California.  We aren’t fussing too much about it as we are trying to enjoy the trip itself. It’s also easier to stomach the $0.85 per litre cost for deisel here in the U.S.!

I’ve been collecting receipts for costs, but they’ve run away on me. I do know that our accomodation, meals and miscellaneous costs (an emergency buy of electronic device cords, and the $70 break-in-to-the-van-to-get-keys adventure) came to $1,000.  Of that, hotels were $500 (we drove late, and took whatever was in front of us) and fuel was about $175.  Miscellaneous costs were about $200 and the rest was meals and snacks.  At an average price per litre of $1.25 for deisel, we estimate we saved $400 in fuel costs for the first leg of our journey (to Sault Ste. Marie).

Since leaving Canada we’ve spent an obscene amount of money on NYC museums and attractions.  It was worth it.  We did luck out on a hotel in Queens.  Just $114 a night, free parking and breakfast.  NYC was great for the kids. We had so much fun with them, culminating with a night out at the musical, Mary Poppins, on my birthday on the 6th.  The city is amazing, but I am sure that long-term city living is no longer in my future!  Too many people!

Today we purchased a tent and sundry items to put us in camping mode.  Not sure what the plans are after Walt Disney World tomorrow, but I think a few beach days may be in order!