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Get Serious About Steam

Posted August 26, 2009 12:01 AM by Old_School

Is steam a serious power source for the American automobile? Though largely written-off over 80 years ago, steam-powered cars may hold promise. The application of modern technology and metallurgy could still offer us a reasonable alternative to the internal combustion engine.

Clean Steam?

The phrase "steam power" usually conjures up images of large, soot-blackened locomotives belching clouds of sulfur into the sky - not exactly the model of clean and efficient power. However, most people tend to forget that steam itself is simply a transfer medium for energy.

Steam is as clean as the fuel that is burned to produce it. Coal and oil were the most convenient and widely available fuels for this purpose (and they still are), so they were the most widely used. But anything that can be burned is a potential source of fuel.

Historically, the materials and manufacturing processes that were used also led to the downfall of steam power. A tweaking of the basic design didn't occur until the 1940s, and the base machine itself remained stalled developmentally at the turn of the century.

Anyone who has compared the internal workings of a Model T Ford to a modern Honda Civic can appreciate how much progress has been made since then. With railroads, steam engines were quickly outpaced by diesel locomotives because diesel engines benefitted from every improvement made in the automotive and electrical industries.

Once Upon a Time, There Were Steam Cars

Several auto manufacturers built steam cars and enjoyed a moderate measure of success. However, a combination of higher costs and executive mismanagement ultimately led to the closure of these companies.

Today, the examples that survive are highly-desired collector items whose owners swear by their reliability and efficiency. Celebrity talk-show host Jay Leno has even said that one of his collectible cars, a Doble Steamer from the 1920s, is clean enough to pass California's stringent emissions and mileage laws. This is especially impressive since Leno's steam-powered car is over 80 years old and twice as heavy as a modern "economy" vehicle.

It cannot be said that steam power's advantages and potential use are up for debate. The fact of the matter is that almost no one is even discussing them! But given our current situation and the limitations posed by our other alternatives, maybe it's time for another look. What do you think?

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#1

Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/26/2009 6:05 AM

It doesn't suggest viable alternatives to generate the steam, any such alternative could be used generate electricity in stead which is also provides relatively simple and clean propulsion with few moving parts.
Much as I'd love to enthuse, it seems rather pointless, you'd still need electricity for the various lighting, entertainment etc which is expected in a modern car.

Del

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#2
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/26/2009 9:00 AM

How'd you generate the electricity, tho'? Wouldn't the conversion to electricity then (via a motor) to kinetic energy lose more than a directly steam-driven vehicle?

re. your last point - a little alternator could be added to run accessories.

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#3
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/26/2009 9:11 AM

OK, I'm convinced...we'll build a steam car.
I'll bring the biscuits.
Del

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#4
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/26/2009 9:17 AM

How 'bout some marshmallows - & a fork?

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#10
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 1:45 AM
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#5

Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/26/2009 6:55 PM

"Once Upon a Time, There Were Steam Cars"

Once upon a time there were steam locomotives.

Why did they get replaced?

Has to boil (no pun intended) down to cost.

Like Del said, it all comes down to energy conversion, but there is more. In mobile vehicles the real issue is power to weight. Gasoline and diesel both win hands down over a steam engine due to power to weight.

To my knowledge that hasn't changed.

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#6
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/26/2009 9:23 PM

I thought that one of the things that put internal combustion engines ahead of external combustion engines, such as in the Stanley Steamers, was that though you could get great power out of a steam engine, it required warm up time, whereas once you turned the crank, or turned the key, you were going in a gasoline powered ICE auto.

Apparently Bill Lear, of Learjet made some experimental steam turbines that had great power, and were very small, and utilized a "Fast Flash" fluid, that were used to power some LA buses.

It has been a long time since then, but I do wonder if the steam turbines Mr. Lear made, coupled with propane fuel, may offer still some superior motive force, as compared with some of the disadvantages of burning propane or CNG in internal combustion engines.

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#19
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/28/2009 8:42 PM

Transcendian-

I think the Chrysler turbine of the 1960's (direct burn instead of heating steam) would prove a lot more efficient than boiling water to run a turbine, then condensing the water to provide feed to your boiler once more.

When I served in the US Navy in the late 1970's, it was aboard a steam-powered ship. It took 24 hours to get the steam up before we could get under way. While these steam plants were obviously way beyond anything one would need for an automobile, I don't think most people are willing to wait even a few minutes to get moving...

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#20
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/29/2009 2:30 PM

In the early '70s, I served on a RN Destroyer with mixed gas/steam turbines. The Gas would get us off the wall and the steam would be up and running about 6 hours later.....

The ship was not new, I think that she was launched about 1964.....so this was not a new concept. the design was from the '50s.

The RN had the gearbox to make it worthwhile, the MSSSS gearbox.....she could change engine states without the need to stop in the water, US ships (all other navies!) of the time had to stop. Later they (the US) were given the secrets of that gearbox I am told....

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#21
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/29/2009 3:03 PM

Later they (the US) were given the secrets of that gearbox I am told....

Yeah, that would be part of the "special relationship"...
We give 'em our secrets... they use us as an aircraft carrier and tell us SFA about their use of our airspace.
They want to extradite our hackers and we bend over over and take it up the a$$.
Scotland makes a humanitarian decision on a guy banged up on iffy evidece...they squeal like stuck pigs.

(Yeah be we still love those bug cuddly guys, cos they scratch us behind the ears)
Del

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#9
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 1:08 AM

If modern metalurgy and chemistry were applied to the steam engine it would by far be lighter than an internal combustion engine. For one thing there is less internal pressure to deal with as you are not trying to adapt an explosion but rather harnessing the expansion of a gaseous fluid.

Many of the problems that were attendant to steam and water were already solved with the White and Stanley steam cars. They had flash boilers and could be up and running in less than on minute from the time that the boiler was fired. And this was in the 1920s. Just think what we could do if we applied modern technology and computer controls.

Someone mentioned Jay Leno's steam car. He has the distinction of having one of the oddest speeding ticket ever given in Caliifornia. He was clocked at over 80 mph in and auto that was over 80 years old. Try that in a model T.

Railroads converted from steam to diesel because the cost of fuel was less at the time as the were only paying about $0.03 a gallon for fuel, as well as it was easier to control multiple engines with the diesel electrics. You had to have a crew of 2 for each engine with steam and only had a range of about 40 miles between water stops. Diesels had a range of 300+ miles and one crew of 2 could control more than 5 engines. I am very familiar with this because I grew up in the town that at one time had the distinction of having the worlds largest railroad roundhouse to repair and maintane the engines for the CB&Q railroad. Creston, Iowa was named because it is the highest point between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers on the Burlington RR, and it was a steep grade from both directions to get over the top and required at least one helper engine to make the grade.

Back in the late 60s and early 70s Bill Lear had some success in producing steam powered transportation. He spent over 6 million dollars of his own money at at time that that really was a lot of money, not pocket change for a wall street broker.

One of the things he discovered was that freon was a more viable medium than water when used in a hermetically sealed system. I would love to be able to play with the idea and see what could be done with the computer controls and advances we have today.

One last bit of information to remember. Steam power is the most powerful source of energy that man has been able to directly harness. Even a juclear power plant is only a fancy way of boiling water.

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#11
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 3:34 AM

Juclear power...hey that's a new one. Is Alien technology involved? Is it over unity? Where do I sign up?

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#12
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 9:22 AM

Just wait until the reports are published. Thank you. I now know that at least one person read what I wrote, even if they did happen to be an editor with a blue pencil. My fingers sometimes have a mind of their own.

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#13
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 10:31 AM

Fear not! Loadsa people will read/have read your post(s).

It's only certain nit-picking mud-slinging pussycats who'll have a dig at you, tho'.

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#14
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 10:35 AM

You smooth talking devil you..

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#15
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 5:36 PM

Hey I'd have dug at him to but the kitty beat me to it.

Besides that post was fraught with errors.

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#7

Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 12:00 AM

Natural gas powered steam engine !!!!

I want one now .

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#8
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/27/2009 12:21 AM

What would be the most efficient option, a steam driven vehicle using propane as a fuel and either a reciprocating engine or a turbine to convert the energy in the steam to rotary motion. One might also consider an electric drive train using electric motors rather than a drive shaft and transmission. Or would a propane powered internal combustion engine which would either drive the vehicle directly or again the use of an electric drive train as previously described.

Propane or CNG would be considered a clean fuel, is the use of steam more efficient than an internal combustion engine.

Living in an area with winter temperatures that may reach -40 degrees (C or F this is where the two temperature scales meet) one would have to give carefull consideration to the working fluid in a steam engine and this is also approaching the point where propane may present starting problems unless provisions are made to gasify the liquid propane.

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#16

Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/28/2009 12:08 PM

I have wondered if steam or some other form of external combustion could yield a vehicle that has a much higher efficiency (percentage of captured chemical energy from combustion) than internal combustion engine vehicles.

I say this because I have heard (but not researched) that stationary plants have a much higher efficiency than cars. Maybe the stationary plants technology does not lend itself to vehicles well because of weight and complexity.

Anyway I'm just thinking out loud.

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#17
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Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/28/2009 12:30 PM

Stationary Plants have a generally higher efficiency because they are designed to operate in a specific power range that maximizes their efficiency and power output. Also, larger systems are generally more efficient by nature of their sheer size, and various energy recapturing systems. A car engine is always cycling through the engine speed because of the nature of driving, so it rarely operates at the point of peak output for any length of time. Also, power plant systems cannot be easily scaled down.

Also, someone else mentioned the possibility of using a steam turbine as the means of motive power. Under 1000 hp is the approximate cutoff limit where turbines become less efficient than a reciprocating engine.

Of course, no one has really tried to scale it down into a car lately (I believe the mid 70's was the last time serious effort was made) so I am interested to see what results a modern attempt can yield.

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#18

Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/28/2009 8:36 PM

If you do a bit of research in to why steam-powered cars fell out of favor after the introduction of the internal-combustion engine, you will note that a major detriment of steam is that you need a warm-up period to get your steam head up to operating pressure. When one considers how people use their automobiles these days, it is very unlikely that a viable steam-powered auto will be able to meet popular expectations....

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#22

Re: Get Serious About Steam

08/30/2009 5:50 PM

Comment by cwarner7_11 "major detriment of steam is that you need a warm-up period to get your steam head up to operating pressure."

Very true, but I once had a very bad experience with an instant water heater. I stepped into a shower, turned on the water and instantly got scorched by super hot water. It wasn't at a boiling point, but hot enough to take the skin off my belly. It is possible that technology could be developed further to power steam automobiles and get the start-up time down to ten seconds or less.

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