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How North Korea Fuels Its Military Trucks With Trees

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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.

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

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