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How North Korea Fuels Its Military Trucks With Trees

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Today, The Atlantic ran an In Focus photo feature on North Korea. One photo stood out to me:

A North Korean truck running on gasified wood. Photo by David Guttenfelder for the AP.

The In Focus caption reads: “A truck, retrofitted to run on a barrel of burning wood, stops on a road in Hamhung, North Korea, on August 11, 2012.”

Is this really a truck running on wood? A BBQ pit on wheels?

Yes, but not for reasons I initially thought. My first guess was that the truck was burning a synthetic diesel fuel from a gasification process called the Fischer-Tropsch process.

Fischer-Tropsch fuels date back to the 1920s where the German chemists Fischer and Tropsch developed a way to break down carbon-based feedstocks into a gas (synthesis gas composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) that can be reformed into hydrocarbon chains (what we like to burn). Carbon sources like natural gas, coal, wood chips, and grass are used as feedstocks. The Nazis militarized the process for the Second World War where Germany, lacking petroleum but having access to lots of domestic coal reserves, could produce fuel to run its planes, tanks, and trucks. The term Fischer-Tropsch is now used loosely to describe gasifying a biomass feedstock into a synthetic fuel. Technically, the Fischer-Tropsch process is the catalyst stage used to reconstruct synthesis gas into a synthetic crude, which is then refined into fuel products.

The Fischer-Tropsch process deconstructs carbon feedstocks in to synthesis gas, to be reformed in to useful hydrocarbons. Click through for source.

So what about our friends in North Korea? What’s a hermit nation with a thirsty military to do? The North Korean truck pictured above looks to be directly gasifying wood chips instead of using already processed sun fuel. A gasifying chamber (it looks like a water heater) is most likely located in the bed of the truck (next to all of the children, of course) Where wood chips are turned in to fuel. See this article for some fantastic photos of wood-fired cars. So instead of filling up with synthetic diesel at a dueling depot, one could top off with a barrel of wood.

That’s not to say North Korea doesn’t have large scale Fischer-Tropsch plants, because it could. Based on statistics from the CIA World FactBook and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, North Korea doesn’t appear to have much in the way of domestic petroleum resources (and imports, of course). North Korea could produce synthetic fuels from wood or coal using a Fischer-Tropsch process, assuming the coal statistics are somewhat accurate.

Thus, one could technically view North Korea as proponent of alternative fuels. Almost.

Photo by David Guttenfelder for the AP.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jerryd 8:19 pm 01/3/2013

    While these work they are both a lot of work and wear out engines rather fast.

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  2. 2. Carlyle 6:50 am 01/4/2013

    I remember the vehicles fitted with producer gas systems in the 1940s. My father had to frequently rebuild our old car engine because the impurities were so harsh but I loved that thing.

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  3. 3. jgrosay 9:43 am 01/4/2013

    It was extensively used in Spain in the 40′s, because of fuel shortages, it received the name “Gasógeno”, it seems that the system produced a gas, similar to the old mix of Hydrogen and CO named “City gas”, derived from coal burning, and that was the main source of energy for home appliances such as cooking and sanitary water heating until the cost of natural gas lowered, that even more was less dangerous than the poisonous and killer CO. The process of obtainig liquid fuels directly from hydrogenating coal may be somehow different, it seems it was used in Germany during WWII.

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  4. 4. bucketofsquid 5:55 pm 01/4/2013

    Why not just use small steam engines? Fewer steps and easier to maintain. Or even better yet, admit that their country is a failure and reform their government to be more like China. Their economy will boom and they can cut the size of their military while dramatically improving its effectiveness.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Carlyle 12:04 am 01/5/2013

    Yes, steam or sterling cycle engines are good but the reason for using conventional engines was that when regular fuel was available, it was only a matter of switching a coupe of valves & off you went. In fact both fuels could be fed to the motor at the same time. The gas generators rely on the intake vacuum to supply the necessary oxygen to the generator so normally you started the engine with standard gasoline until the gas production was established.

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  6. 6. tate0774 5:27 am 01/5/2013

    The picture appears to be almost identical to the one shown in Wiki:

    Gasification of chopped wood was widely used in Sweden and Finland during the war years 1940-44 and even thereafter. While gasification of wood produced a lot of impurities along with the wood gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide), the latest designs were highly effective in filtering out the unwanted components:

    In Helsinki (capital of Finland as you possibly know), taxi cars dumped the ashes and still glowing charcoals from the gas generators to a greenland in the Helsinki harbor. At the age of 6 (1946), I and my friends had a great pleasure by peeing on the charcoal heaps and seeing a great cloud of steam rising therefrom. (Perhaps such memories are slightly inappropriate in this context, but there are not many readers any more that have lost all the windows of their apartment by Russian bombs demolishing a building 50 meters downstreet:
    (one of buildings being partially demolished in 1940 is the main building of Helsinki University of Technology, wherein I will start my M.Sc. (electronics) studies in 1959)

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