Tampa, Fla. — Harry LaFontaine drives his custombuilt Lincoln Continental limousine all over the state of Florida -- and he doesn't use a drop of gas. The Florida motorist, in fact, doesn't measure his fuel in miles per gallon, but miles per cord of wood.
Trailing behind his five-year-old car is a small trailer with a domed tank that emits a thin stream of smoke as the car picks up speed. The car runs on the gases that are produced by the burning blocks of wood inside the tank.
This is not a new technology, by any means, Mr. LaFontaine reports, who was part of a team scientists who helped revive it during the World War II to help save his native Denmark from hunger. It was used in other parts of Europe and the world as well.
Now the US Department of Energy and the Florida governor's energy office are paying Mr. LaFontaine to tour the state universities to try to raise more interest in biomass research.
Denmark turned to the gasification of wood to power its vehicles after the German occupation in 1940. With the coastline blocked to imports, as well as the diversion of its oil to the Germany Army, the Danes faced hunger without fuel for farm machinery and the transporting of food to the cities.
"Overnight we had to come up with answers," Mr. LaFontaine says. "When people are hungry, they have to act right away. We went into the libraries to find out what people had done before. We found that when the chips are down, people have turned to gasification."
The technology goes back to 1840, he says, and it basically works like this:
Burning wood emits carbon dioxide and water vapor as gases. If those gases are closed in a container, and if the fire is intensified by forcing air through the wood, then the carbon dioxide changes to carbon monoxide and the water vapor produces hydrogen.
Both carbon monoxide and h ydrogen are combustle. When they are forced into a converted automobile carburetor, they will ignite in a standard internalcombustion engine.
Mr. LaFontaine's gasifier can hold about 100 pounds of wood, all split into small blocks, and can travel about 100 miles between refuelings. That amounts to some 3,200 miles on a cord of wood.
By the end of World War II, Denmark had built 5 million gasifiers at a cost of about $300 apiece, and gas stations changed from selling petroleum to selling wood.
What Mr. LaFontaine is trying to do now is make Americans aware of wood- gasification technology in the event of a severe gasoline shortage. It's simply another way to get a vehicle to move if gasoline cannot be found.
The technology, he concludes, could be used even now by US farmers. He says a farmer with about three acres planted to trees could become self-sufficient in energy by using gasifiers to drive both his machinery as well as electric generators.
So that chimney on the Florida Interstate is just Mr. LaFo ntaine on his way to another school.