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PSJ trip disrupted by COVID-19

Tim Croft
The Star

Jakob North had to improvise as the coronavirus raced across much of the country.

North had long-planned WoodGas 2020, a personal trip from sea to shining sea, Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border in his truck.

A truck, which Jakob, just 16, built from the ground up.

A truck, by the by, that is powered primarily by wood.

If completed, and Jakob’s western swing is scheduled to begin in May though it takes him to the state of Washington, North’s trip would be the longest ever taken in a wood-burning vehicle.

He hopes to accomplish the trip before his 17th birthday but even if his trip extends past that date Jakob would be the youngest person, and have the longest cross-country trip, in a wood-burning vehicle.

In late March, after a bout with, ironically, the flu, North set off from his home in Randolph, AL for the southern swing of his trip.

His original plan was to drive to Port St. Joe and see the Gulf of Mexico from the county’s sandy shores; Jakob already had beach access points and a spot for photos picked out.

COVID-19 brought other ideas.

So, Jakob and his father, Billy North, Jr., improvised.

The route was altered to allow for a shorter driving distance to the Gulf without any overnight stays and food was carried from home to restrict any contact with humans, though that contact is part of WoodGas 2020.

But, so many roads, state parks and beaches were closed once Jakob reached the coast that he actually had trouble even reaching the Gulf of Mexico.

But he did and is on his way back to his home base in Alabama.

As of Tuesday, he was at the Alabama state line, four hours from Randolph, and had traveled 690 miles.

Over his first 580 miles, Jakob used 681 pounds of wood and just a quart of gasoline.

Ultimately, the planned trip will cover nearly 8,000 miles and take Jakob to 24 states, Billy said, with Jakob in a truck hauling a small trailer for his fuel wood.

The trip has two primary purposes: to prove the technology and to promote it to agencies working with developing nations to assist the poor.

The North family operates ADAPTech (Advancing Development with Applied Practical Technology, a training and development organization focused on aiding the poor of the world meet basic human needs.

The gasification technology used in the wood-burning vehicle could be implemented to create a local, sustainable energy source in developing countries where petroleum is impractical, Billy said.

The energy has a range of uses in industries from transportation to food canneries that require large amounts of energy, Billy said.

Jakob, who is dual-enrolled student, is already the youngest person (15) to transverse the U.S. in a wood-powered vehicle, again made by Jakob, when he drove from Randolph to the Great Lakes and back.

That truck was totaled by another vehicle upon his return to Randolph so Jakob built a second as a present to himself for his 16th birthday.

He built a third, started it in November and finished it last month, for his trip across the country.

Along the way Jakob designed a new wood gasifier of stainless steel to withstand higher heats.

The truck is able to sustain highway speeds of 70 mph and higher, Billy said, adding that Jakob needs about .75 to 1.3 pounds of wood per mile.

Billy said most understand that most gas burned in automobiles contains some ethanol, derives mostly from corn.

In a Cliff Notes version, with a wood gasifier the driver makes fuel as he needs it.

Wood must be cut a uniform size and dried as much as possible and is added via a “hopper”, typically a drum or container directly above the “reduction zone” or “fire tube.”

The fire tube is an insulated area of intense heat created by a charcoal fire; temperatures in that area can reach over 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, Billy said.

This intense heat roasts the wood above the fire tube in order to turn it into a rich smoke that is sucked, by the engine, through the hot charcoal to reduce it into smaller, safer, more combustible molecules, or Wood Gas.

Further, some of the water in the mixture is “cracked” into oxygen gas and hydrogen gas by the extreme heat. The remaining water drains into a holding tank for later disposal.

After the gas is made it is cooled, cleaned, and piped to the engine where it is mixed with air and sent into the engine to be burned.

Simple valves controlled from the driver’s compartment are used to make necessary adjustments to the mixture of air and gas and to the engine timing.

According to Billy, wood gas is 97 percent more efficient that gasoline, any exhaust is cleaner than gas and does not add carbon to the atmosphere.

Jakob carried the wood he needed to hit the coast this past week, but will need to pick up wood along other stretches of his trip.

Billy said friends were cutting and drying wood from Nebraska to Colorado to California to Washington.