That Sunk Cost Feeling

By floating through the internet and also by looking at YouTube videos and by glancing at what the various green and sustainability people are thinking about it is apparent that many are thinking about steam as being viable.  This is correct.  Steam power is something that I have accumulated information about in order to assist anyone who has the resources to put into steam development.  One would think that new convert to the religion of steam would first of all do some research, find everyone they can who has experience boiling water, then make something that works so they can experience steam power, and only after all of that preparation go out and invent something.

Of course that is not how the world works.  What the new steam person invariably does is come up with an invention based on pre-conceived vague ideas about reality and then spends all of their disposable income getting patents; firmly believing that someone is going to steal their idea and get rich on it.  One wonders why this is so, why so many poor decisions are made sequentially.  I assume that a main reason is because we are dealing here with engineer types and engineers never ever read a book or do research or consider history to have any relevance to real life.

Almost always the invention is a new type of expander, which is the motor or engine that turns pressurized gases into rotary power.  Here again, one wonders about the reasons.  A steam power plant needs so many other improvements; for example a good burner and a good heat exchanger and water pump and, above all else, a good condenser.  These are not fun to invent and so they are not invented.  Because a steam engine (the expander) only has to work under a compressed gas it is much simpler than an internal (Otto Cycle) combustion engine.  Thus there are many more opportunities for creative mechanisms that do not involve the crankshaft, connecting rods, and wrist pins used in billions of IC engines and for the very good reason that they (the crankshafts and all) are mundane, pedestrian, and not creative enough, and actually get the job done.

Thus the steam world is cursed with Tesla turbines, every possible vane motor imaginable,   cam engines, ‘Z’ cranks, which are not bad if done properly as in Peter Scott-Brown’s design, swash plates, and, worst of all, flexible shafts.  What a person should do when thinking about steam is study Professor Stumpf’s 1922 book where he listed 7 principles on the first page of how to make an efficient steam engine.

One of the principles is to not have any steam pressure leakage.  To conform to this principle there should be the smallest possible sliding surface so that as small a seal as possible  is needed.  That is why in IC engines pistons are round, bore and stroke are more or less ‘square’ and piston rings are used.  Because the piston is round the ring can be made with some spring to it so that it naturally seals.  Some other subtle points help, such as having the piston grove sufficiently larger and deeper than the ring so that pressurized gas can get behind the ring and further push it out against the cylinder, providing more force than just the spring in the ring.  Many of the above-mentioned less than ideal expander designs have flat surfaces that need sealing, very long sealing surfaces compared to that needed for a round piston, or point contacts that cannot be sealed with any type of a mechanism.

A second principle of Stumpf has to do with leaking heat.  A steam engine is a heat engine.  A lot of work is done to achieve efficient combustion and even more work is done to get that heat exchanged into making hot steam.  One does not want to lose any of that hard earned heat during the expanding process.  Many factors are at play and the main one has to do with surface area.  Heat is lost, radiated or whatever, convected, across a metal surface.  As a simple geometry lesson, the three dimensional shape that has the greatest volume to surface area is a sphere.  We have not figured out how to use spheres as an expander shape and therefore we use the next best geometric shape; the cylinder.

And so what happens is that the starry-eyed inventor does not read Stumpf, does not think that understanding history will help and, in fact, thinks that the creative juices will be stifled by the acquisition of any knowledge, and then they spend tens of thousands on patents.

The January 21, 2013 New Yorker magazine has an editorial on p. 24 about the New York Jets quarterback.  The title is “That Sunk-Cost Feeling”.  The Jets have contracted to pay over $8 million next year to a mediocre quarterback and are now trying to figure out what to do.  This is a classic economic dilemma.  In a purely rational world the amount of money being contracted would be irrelevant to decision making.  And here is the best sentence to be quoted in toto: “But in the real world sunk costs are hard to ignore.”  Because: “Abandoning a project that you’ve invested a lot in feels like you’ve wasted everything, and waste is something we’re told to avoid.”  The phrases ‘throwing good money after bad’ and ‘cutting one’s losses’ are bandied about.   “Giving up on a project, though, means that somebody has to admit that he shouldn’t have done it in the first place.”  “The problem is that patience is often simply self-justification”. This is in reference to sticking with and working further on a poor idea.  When an idea is monumentally bad sometimes even more money is thrown at it.  Psychologists call that “escalation of commitment.”

The reason for going on and on about this subtle economic point is because it explains to my satisfaction why no one thanks me when I point out to them what monumentally poor designs they have patented for their steam engines.


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3 Responses to That Sunk Cost Feeling

  1. BillSmith332 says:

    Thank you for your web site. You mention the need for using a good design when starting a project. I am in the process of designing a Lamont boiler but i dont want to waste time making mistakes that others have solved. So, where can i find a working design for a Lamont Boiler. Tube size? length? temp? Where to find a high temp circulator pump? I would like my boiler to run at only 100-150 psi because i want it to be as safe as possible. is this a bad idea?

    • tkimmel3 says:

      Dear Bill Smith, In asking me for assistance in designing a LaMont boiler you will be reminded of the old adage about in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Therefore, thank you for your expression of optimism. I have seen the plans for a good LaMont boiler and also seen one run and cannot put my hands on the plans right now. What you have is basically a mono-tube boiler with three separate circuits, or sets of coils. The Economizer section is just some pancake coils as much as you have the money and room for to extract as much heat out of the exhaust gases as possible. This preheats the water before it is pumped into the circulating coils. All told a LaMont needs about 40% of the tubing that a regular monotube requires, so you just figure out what is needed and for a monotube and make it smaller. The circulating coils are in the fire and always full of water and you will want to circulate somewhere in the 5-10 times the evaporation rate. This will cause something like a 5 psi or a little more pressure head; only enough to overcome skin friction. This circulated water goes into a vertical separator column and the steam is pulled off the top and goes into a superheater coil section that is best buried either in the middle of the circulating coils are after them. As for a pump, that is the rub. We are all looking for one of those. The successful model of a LaMont has that problem solved with I think graphite seals and a small dc permanent magnet motor and a centrifugal pump. The design details have not been shared with us. That one is in New Hampshire. There are two small, 2-3 hp, boilers made that use positive displacement (piston) circulating pumps. This is by far the easiest solution for a small unit. Kimric Smythe out of Oakland has worked with several pumps. His first one came out of a dishwasher. It was a gear pump in a pot metal cast housing. He is now working with Procon pumps and finding very high friction losses so far. My suggestion is to find a commercial restaurant or institutional sized dishwasher and get one of their water pumps. You can do some research and find out what pressure they run at to spray water to wash dishes, but that should do what you want to do. I have not found a place to purchase these or even the name of a dishwasher maker company. The other solution is to weld a box around any old centrifugal pump and that box holds boiler pressurized water so the pump itself does not need to be able to handle high pressure. Lastly, as for limiting your pressure to 100-150 psi for safety, that is not an issue. I work in the 1000 psi range and am still alive, and no thanks to any common sense being used. You can look up the figures yourself, but 1/2″ schedule 40 black iron is good for 8,000 psi and 1/4″ 316 stainless is good for 16,000 psi so I think we have a good safety factor there. Besides, splitting a tube is not dangerous if you have a little sheet metal around it to hold the hot water spray down some. Boiler pressure is designed for the steam engine, which is the limiting factor. What you do is run the pressure up until you bend a rod and then fabricate a new rod and back off on the pressure. Doing research on a LaMont depends on where you are located. Tony Grzyb in the Detroit area has the most experience with his steam bicycle. If you see him first and them come see me, in SW Michigan, then I can tell you how to improve on Tony’s designs. Tony is sensitive so do not tell him that we all have improvements on his design or he will made irreverent comments about why we have not made a LaMont boiler that worked ourselves. As for a good design, you should look up the websites for both Clayton boiler out of California and Vapor or Vapor Corp out of the Chicago area. They both sell LaMont commercial pallet boilers and have good schematics on their websites. Good luck. Tom Kimmel

      • BillSmith332 says:

        Thank you for the detailed reply. I have recently been reading the ‘steam theory’ page, very good page of information to help me. I’m writing tonight to say that i’ve decided to start building a simpler monotube. When I succeed with that, I will attempt to figure out that Lamont pump problem. I figure I can modify my monotube for my future Lamont. So I have started by building a firebox. I’m using a Riello burner for the heat. Above the firebox I am using a stainless 6″ chimney pipe. In the pipe I have coiled 50 feet of 316 stainless coil 3/8″ diameter. I realize this is not long enough, but I plan to start with two 50 ft. coils for initial tests. Between them I plan to put a temperature thermal-couple and a water probe detector.

        Is 3/8″ a bad idea? I read on one of the steam blogs (maybe yours) that some of the systems use increasing sizes, as the coil gets hotter. 3/8″ – 1/2″ – ect…

        I have also read different configurations of the coil. I have read that the input water should be on the top (the economizer) but i have also read that the hottest part of the coil shouldn’t be at the bottom (right near the hottest part of the fire). They say: this is because you don’t want the coil that is dry (full of steam) to get too hot because you don’t have the water to cool the pipe, so it may overheat and melt the pipe.
        What configuration should I use? Would it be bad to pump cold water at the bottom of the stack (nearest to the fire)?

        On your ‘steam theory’ page I read that trying to maintain a certain water level in the tubing is difficult. I was wondering what you thought about using a water probe detector (those used in home oil hydronic units)?

        Thanks for your time.

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