More than a century ago, one of the most ambitious and audacious attempts to develop alternate fuel on campus was the creation of the infamous straw gas car, a 1918 invention still on display in Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum (WDM). Making use of the mounds of straw created in the process of threshing wheat and usually burned after harvest, USask researcher Dr. R.D. MacLaurin (PhD), head of the Department of Chemistry, built a small extraction plant to power a motorized vehicle using straw for fuel.
At a time when gasoline, kerosene and coal, among others, were all being tested as the most feasible fuels to power piston engines, the straw gas process proved promising at first. However, the early USask researchers soon determined that the amount of usable fuel produced was too small and the mileage for vehicles powered by straw gas was much lower than other fuel options.
That early research project was abandoned a year later after MacLaurin and three other faculty members were dismissed in a dispute with President Walter Murray over research funding, leading to the “University Crisis of 1919.” The crisis aside, researching the story of this innovative investigation of alternate fuel sources is a fascinating aspect of Patrick Hayes’ position as an archives technician in University Archives and Special Collections.
“The University of Saskatchewan was created not just to educate the people of the province, but also to make life better through innovation. Straw gas is but one example of exploring ideas for the betterment of the wider community,” Hayes said. “Universities are the engine of innovation in Canada and USask has led the way in a variety of fields. New innovations build on the foundation of earlier innovations. Breakthroughs grow from past efforts. Many of our present areas of expertise and excellence grew out of work started in the first few decades.”
The USask straw fuel car—the McLaughlin Motor Car Model D45—featured a large gas tank mounted above the roof that housed the gas used to power the experimental vehicle, which made its public debut on a test drive from the university campus to downtown Saskatoon in August of 1918. A replica of that unique USask vehicle is featured in the WDM’s Fueled by Innovation exhibit, which features a variety of early alternative fuel vehicles from Saskatchewan and around the world.
That innovative spirit continues today in research from the likes of distinguished engineering professor Dr. Ajay Dalai (PhD)—USask’s Canada Research Chair in Bioenergy and Environmentally Friendly Chemical Processing since 2001—to young doctoral student Tumpa Sarker, who recently discovered a method for creating better biomass fuel pellets as an environmentally friendly energy source.