December 12, 2016 was a momentous day at Living Energy Farm. We have been living and earning our living without fossil fuel for a while now, with the exception of the gasoline tractor that is the backbone of our farming operation. On December 12th, we finally started driving around the tractor on woodgas! That was an exciting event for us. I have wanted to set up woodgas since I was a child.
I had dreams about tractors that night. That was fun.
The following days were less fun. An engine under full load uses a lot more energy, and fuel, than a engine just puttering about. We hooked the bush hog to the tractor and took it into the cover crop from last summer. That stuff needs to be mowed before spring, and the bush hog loads the tractor engine down hard, so it seemed like a good time to power test the gasifier. We had done some work early on with homemade gasifiers, and then spent several thousand dollars on a manufactured gasifier. We spoke at length with the supplier, and they were sure their gasifier would handle our 35 horsepower tractor. When we power tested it, the gasifier heated up quite a bit. After cool-down, we checked it over. There’s no pretty way to say it. We melted it. Not the whole thing mind you, but the stainless reactor in the bottom of the gasifier was all but gone.
There is a yahoo woodgas list. Consulting the various opinions, we have come to the conclusion that the gasifier we spent so much time and money on simply cannot handle a 35 hp engine under load. Our plan has been to have two tractors on the farm. The 35 hp tractor to handle the heavy tillage, and a little one-row tractor to do the planting and cultivating. The cultivating tractor is half the horsepower of our “big” 35 hp tractor (which is very small by modern standards). So now we have rebuilt the melted reactor and we are putting the gasifier on the small cultivating tractor. We can, if we have to, run the whole farm with just the small cultivating tractor.
With our simple experiments thus far, it is clear that woodgas has its headaches. Just getting decent sized chips without an industrial chipper is slow. So far it takes us close to an hour to process fuel to run the tractor for an hour. There are numerous designs for homemade “chunkers” to make woodgas chips. We may build one of those. The whole question of what level of technology is actually sustainable is a complex one. The reality is, for all the idealistic banter around various kinds of farming, we all live on industrial grains. We are trying to produce such grains on a modest scale with sustainable technologies. As with all forms of renewable energy, decreasing demand is by far the biggest issue. Given that our tillage needs are modest, even an annoying fuel source is probably worth it so we don’t need fossil fuels. In the coming months, we will see how that comes together, and just how much annoyance is involved….
Enjoying the Warmth of a Solar House
Though our woodgas clearly needs some development, other aspects of the project are going fantastically well. The glory of a solar house is truly fantastic. The hum of the 180 volt solar blowers during the day is such a comforting sound. We know it means we
don’t have to cut firewood, blow a lot of wood smoke into the air, or pay a utility bill! When the sun shines, the house is comfortable even in bitter cold temperatures. We build fires when it is cold and cloudy for days on end. The amount of firewood we burn for heating is very small, so we do not need to invest in expensive wood burning equipment. The house is also not complete. It is clear that most of our heat loss at this point is out the doors and windows. Once we get thermal curtains on them, the thermal performance will likely be much better.
We have been working a bit on the solar boiler as well. Not much to say about it just yet, other than we have set a few pieces of paper on fire in front of our large satellite dish that we set up to use as a collector. We have started experimenting with solar troughs as well (not starting from scratch, mostly using other people’s designs). In thinking about taking LEF’s ideas around the world, we realized that a setup with a trough instead of a dish might be easier and cheaper. Our warm-climate trough design is MUCH simpler than the cold-climate design. No tracking, no pumps (maybe). Stay tuned.