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.