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Straw Gas Car

By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
June 2012

A Novel Idea

Ever heard of a straw gas car? It’s a car that runs on the gaseous vapour produced by heating straw. Back in 1917, University of Saskatchewan chemistry professor R.D MacLaurin and his engineering colleague A.R. Greig teamed up to test the possibility of using straw gas as fuel for engines.

Fuel was in short supply during the First World War. Wood was scarce on the prairies and coal was expensive. Straw, however, was plentiful. Perhaps gas produced from straw could offer a cheap solution to the fuel problem. Motor vehicles powered by coal gas were used in Britain during the War. Would the idea work with straw?

Saskatchewan Patent

Based on Moose Jaw engineer George Harrison’s 1916 patent for "recovering gas from straw" the professors went to work. By heating baled straw in a retort, the gas, mostly methane, could be captured and used to run a motor. The first tests were conducted on a four horsepower IHC stationary engine.

The Balloon Car

But would it work on a car? MacLaurin ordered a gas bag, essentially a big sturdy balloon, from London, England. A Saskatoon dealer lent him a McLaughlin car. The beauty of the plan was that the motor did not require much modification.

Left: Straw gas car at the University of Saskatchewan, 1918
WDM George Shepherd Library Photo

The balloon was rigged to the car’s frame. A pipe led from the balloon to the carburetor. By turning a valve, the car could be run on gasoline or switched to the straw gas vapour in the balloon.

Heads turned in Saskatoon on an August day in 1918 as MacLaurin headed downtown in the straw gas-powered car. With its big balloon suspended overhead it was quite a spectacle. The Saskatoon Daily Star reported,

Saskatonians had the pleasure of seeing the first motor car to be run on straw gas on the streets of Saskatoon or anywhere else in the entire world.

Straw gas car at the University of Saskatchewan, 1918
WDM George Shepherd Library Photo

End of the Road

But by 1919, further experiments at the U of S were abandoned. The process of turning straw into gas took too much straw, too much manpower and too much time to be practical.

Twenty-First Century Research at the University of Saskatchewan

There is a contemporary twist to the 1918 straw gas story. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are developing innovative ways to fuel our vehicles. Some of these are already on the market, and more are in the works.

The University of Saskatchewan was behind the City of Saskatoon's BioBus experiment in which a biodiesel mix derived from canola oil was tested and proved successful in reducing engine wear and increasing fuel economy. The U of S worked with Milligan Bio-Tech in Foam Lake to develop a biodiesel additive from frost-damaged canola. The SunFuel project at the U of S is working on a way to turn wet biomass into syngas which can be used to make ethanol, gasoline or other liquid fuels.

One wonders what the pioneers of the straw gas experiments in 1918 would think of today's innovations.

Straw Gas car on display at the Saskatoon WDM
Completed recreation of the experimental straw gas car.
WDM Photo

Telling the Story

Using a McLaughlin E35 car from the Museum’s collection and a representation of the original gas bag, the WDM tells the story of the University’s experimental straw gas car in the Transportation Gallery at the Saskatoon Western Development Museum.

See how we built it -->

View the Original Patent Documents Online

Click on the patent number below to view the original patent documents on the Canadian Patent Office Patents Database.

Method of Producing Gas from Straw
George Harris, Moose Jaw
Patent No. 170026   1916

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