Gas balloons, chemistry and woodgas

I just had an interesting conversation with a balloonist. He called in looking for information about creating large volumes of woodgas for filling gas balloons. Helium to fill these things has gotten exorbitantly expensive. Getting hydrogen delivered to take-off locations is difficult.

In some countries they can get coal gas, which works OK. So they are looking to create a mobile rig that can produce a workable gas for their needs. Can we help them?

Some things to consider:

  • They need huge volumes of gas. Somewhere around 100,000 cubic feet.

  • They are only interested in the hydrogen content, CO is barely lighter than air and nitrogen is a waste of space. So possibly running off of pure oxygen would be beneficial.

As we know, charcoal gasifiers create nearly pure CO. Adding water to the reaction creates some hydrogen. The water-gas shift converts CO and water into H2 and CO2. Could the CO2 then be separated out?


I would use an oxygen concentrator. Not sure what would work best though wood or charcoal. If using pure oxygen you can greatly boost the water injection using a charcoal system. You need to replace the nitrogen with something. In the case of charcoal you would replace it with steam.


To sepperate the CO out, you would then use a gasometer. Maybe a series of them and draw the h2 off the top. If you knew the percentage of the gas you could then remove just that much from the gasometers. Then exhaust off the left over CO. Maybe re circulate it back to creat process heat to enhance the process.


Oh what if you did this with a retort. Use the CO to fire to the retort send the pyrolys gas to the gasometer take the H2 and resend the CO to primary combustion stage.

Use the charcoal for additional water gas process.


You are correct MattR.
Most will fuss about any carry through nitrogen. CO carried through. Or CO2.
The real key will be controlling and binding up the O’s oxygen. Hot, HOT reactive carbon does this O’s binding. Air blown wood charcoal. Just like in ores metals de-oxidizing.

Now ChrisKy talking about wood charcoal easy made heat I wonder about your balloonist inquiry.
All of the recreational balloonist I met, known used Hot-Air ballooning. Propane heated. Easy to envision that heating done with a battery, a blower and wood charcoal. Almost as handily at the point of usage.

The “balloonist” who use will-loose-it-all helium and would want to use hydrogen are release and track, data collectors. Sure. Sure they have an expense in the lofting gases use-loss. But the value of the data should be worth the costs.
And the set up for data collection, collation and analysis labor hours should be their priority.
Huh. 1st make the wood charcoal - Labor time. Set up a largish producer to make expeditiously those amounts of volumes said needed - More labor time. The post-usage have to clean, clean and re-set up the producer system for the next useage - More labor time.

It’s not that it could not be done.
I see none willing to labor time operate and maintan a producer system such as would be needed.

Hell; you cannot even get the majority cultures bought-in to effectively wood make up and operate a wood heating stove anymore.

Steve Unruh


You could get it to fly but how do you keep it up if you are not periodically firing the burners? Plus Chris is talking about helium and hydrogen. I think that’s something different than the hot air balloons. Without an on-board pressurized gas supply I can’t see how it’s possible.


Thats not what they are doing. Think Zeplin


Handy_Andy, you were looking for a project for Argos. How about a tethered hot air baloon that is charcoal powered on a kite string?


That would be so cool. And have a bucket light too.


Chemistry: search for “watergas” = high % Hydrogen

2: run gasifier driven generators, produce Hydrogen by Electrolysis, use the Oxygen to feed back to the gasifier/generator


I had no idea hydrogen baloons are still a thing…

I had a idea of a electricly aided gasifier a while back, shuld produce nitrogen free gas. Not viable for engine use but here it might work.


Using this as a constraint… severely limits the scope of the operation.
Airgas sells #300 cylinders (260 cubic feet) @2400psig, which expands to 44,571 cu.ft. @ 14psi. So three cylinders would do the job.
I suspect the difficulty is getting a placarded delivery truck to go off the pavement is impossible. The balloonists probably better buy a 4wd pickup/camper top, and haul their own cylinders.

The question boils down to: What do you want to do? Design, build, and operate a gas plant for remote operation, or fly balloons?


First, Helium has become insanely expensive and there has been a ‘global shortage’ for years. I get his point. Most of it is a byproduct of condensing air by refrigeration. There is a youtube video on how to do basically fractional distillation at super cold temps, I think to make liquid nitrogen (but once you are that cold you have like helium/hydrogen/argon left) I believe MOST of the worlds supply of helium was made in Qatar and they have a reputation for price gouging like what they did with MTBE as well.

His balloon CAN run on other gases, provided it is certified for those gases according to the FAA. Other gases they mention are Hydrogen and City gas )aka town gas or coal gas which is deadly. Prior to NG, town gas was piped into peoples houses and it was popular to commit suicide by sticking their head in an unlit oven instead of doing a mass shooting.