Steam power is practical.  It is the only presently practical way to turn bio-fuels into mechanical motion. Thus, steam power allows the use of clean burning, domestically produced, renewable fuels that do not add carbon to the atmosphere when they are burned. These external combustion engines burn clean because they can have a large combustion chamber with plenty of dwell time and plenty of turbulence and an excess of oxygen over the stoichiometric ratio so the burn is clean of any of the standard pollutants.

Steam power is practical because of modern designs, modern materials, and new technologies. A modern steam power plant is about the same size and weight of a comparable output gasoline engine. A steam power plant has the further flexibility in that it has many components: combustion chamber, heat exchanger, expander, and condenser. These components can be made of many different geometric shapes and positioned throughout a vehicle, thus not requiring a large engine compartment. It is capable of burning any type of fuel—liquid, gas, solid, or pelletized; either domestically produced coal, bio-diesel production by-products such as glycerin, specifically grown cellulose, or ethanol production by-products such as lignin and cellulose in its unprocessed form.

Mission: To collect all of the information possible, to mine such information, and to sort it.

The information being collected comes in many forms. The most useful information is in the form of good running modern steam powered automobiles, followed by steam generators, and engines that have been dynamometer tested. There are prototype engines, designs, and inventions that have been made over the years and since abandoned as people passed on. It is possible to learn almost as much from failed projects as it is from successful ones because they teach us which paths to not take.

To this end I have collected books, about 600 titles with many of them being University text books, SAE Technical Papers, over 80 of them steam power related, 6,000 patent numbers, private notes and correspondence, and steam magazines from the 1930’s on until now. I have done many interviews with people who knew steam people or who did the work themselves. This interviewing is an on-going project.

Goal: My goal is to write several books on this subject.

One book will be about the people who spent their lives working in their garages and shops, trying to make something that works. Another book will be a technical how-to book on modern steam design. To that end I am presently traveling around the country interviewing people. I have found steam people to be the most interesting, intelligent, and friendly people in the world. They do not all agree. Not only do they not agree with other steam people, few even agree with themselves. This is because steam power is very complex. It has many possibilities for designs. The many different theories and designs is what makes the study of steam so interesting.

The Conclusion: The conclusion is that enough information is available to make an efficient modern steam power plant.

New inventions and new engine designs are not needed. What new engine designs that are publicized every so often usually involve some variation on the rotary engine and they do not work with steam because of sealing problems and differential expansion from the heat in the steam. Steam enters the engine very hot and then rapidly cools as it expands and work is done which is the cause of differential thermal expansion. In a conventional piston and cylinder engine there is always room for incremental improvements and people are working on improved burners, heat exchangers, control systems, valves and valve timing, and variable clearance volume engines that will increase the thermal efficiency of steam. A great deal of engineering will be necessary before commercial production begins. The engineering is going to be very expensive, as is all engineering, but the basic knowledge for a good design is in existence.

A steam power plant is very complex because multiple heat exchangers are needed, corrosion and lubrication problems need to be solved, high turn-down ratio burners need to be engineered, and there are very few off-the-shelf components available. An even more serious problem comes from the fact that engineering schools no longer teach steam technology. Thus there is no reservoir of experience to draw on when doing the engineering work and people with experience are a critical part of the infrastructure necessary for a new technology to be engineered and practically manufactured.

Steam power has application in our modern world both in a high technology modern transportation system, in distributed power generation, and in a very low technology application for stationary power in a Third World setting. In both areas renewable fuels that are non-polluting can be used.

Reason: The reason for engaging in this project is because my interest in steam is based on emotion, as are all great passions. There is a primal fascination with making a fire and then using it to produce power. Any fuel can be burned and the whole process is nearly silent with just some fan noise and the clicking of moving metal parts. An internal combustion engine (hereafter IC), in contrast, has the fire unseen and inside the cylinders and because the combustion consists of intermittent explosions it is very noisy. The power produced by a steam engine can be made with highly variable torque, thus allowing it to operate without clutches and transmissions if one so desires, greatly simplifying the drive train. The entirely different feel while driving a steam powered automobile, as compared to an IC powered one, is one of the main emotional attractions to steam cars.

Modern steam developments are little known. The people who are working on them seldom write things down. When they die their work dies with them. There is a need to preserve the stories, the visions, and the experiences of those who have devoted their lives to working in this obscure field. Sometimes all we have left is a piece of equipment and all that we can do is to take it apart to see what the thought processes were of the builder. I want to preserve this technology. I want to save these pieces of iron. I want to remember these people.

Another attraction to steam power is that it is something a person can do in their garage with a lathe and a mill and a welder. It has not gone to the stage of complexity of present day computers and microchips where an individual cannot make a contribution to the world.

A steam power plant is made from fabricated metal. It does not use unseen electrical impulses to do its work. It is an area where one person can think and work and produce something of value to the larger society.

Steam power is a useful technology at many different levels and in many areas of life still in the 21st century. The modern rich person living in suburbia would benefit from a totally quiet, totally non-polluting steam lawn mower or leaf blower, for one example. The peasant in sub-equatorial Africa would benefit from a passive solar collector powering a low-tech steam engine that could pump clean water from deep wells. This would replace a noisy diesel engine dependant upon expensive imported fuel and requiring regular maintenance by a skilled mechanic. The Micronesian living on an atoll in the middle of the ocean would benefit from a golf cart sized vehicle that could burn whole and un-processed coconuts, husks and all, or just the husks after the copra was extracted, to drive around the island. They could use the same technology to power a fishing boat. The American farmer could burn excess, cracked, or moldy corn to power his farm tractors freeing him from the expense and logistics of using foreign oil. The maker of small robots or small two wheeled personal transportation vehicles needs a power source more compact, more long lasting, and more capable of using renewable fuels than batteries. At the present time everything from video cameras to mobile telephones to golf carts is dependant on battery power. The battery can either be replaced by a very small steam engine or can be locally re-charged by a small steam engine that burns locally produced fuel. The fuel can be anything from thorn bushes to oil palm nuts to camel dung.

There are two examples of these small electrical generators that were used during WWII. One was a radio battery charging unit that went in with the paratroopers and burned gasoline and the other was used by the British in isolated areas. It burned wood. It was very clever and it all fit in a small foot locker.

There are other possibilities, endless and unbelievable to the uninitiated into the technology of modern steam. As one example there are many benefits from and possible designs for a light weight high-torque low-speed steam engine for use in an ultra-light airplane which would eliminate both the exhaust noise and the propeller noise of the present power sources. Because a steam engine can be engineered for any torque and rpm range desired, the engine for an ultra-light aircraft would be more reliable than an IC engine because it would not need a gear reduction and the propeller would be much more efficient because it could be very large and slow turning.

A great deal of time could be used correcting the common misconceptions of steam power such as the belching of clouds of black coal smoke, the long time period required to get them fired up and started, the danger of the boilers blowing up, the need to stop every few miles to tank up with water, and that steam vehicles have to be heavy, rusty, and run on steel wheels. These were true conceptions about antique steam power, a technology 150 years old. None of these are true about modern steam, which is why, in fact, it is called modern steam, and why I am interested in it.

And finally, there is an element of idealism in working on an idea that has the potential to make the world a better place. A person’s standard of living improves when there is no noise pollution or air pollution. The societies’ standard of living improves when there is no pollution from the heavy metals used in batteries and when carbon is not added to the air when fossil fuels are burned, and when fuel sources are indigenous and not transported in tanker trucks and railroad tank cars. Economists refer to all of the above listed negatives as external costs. Usually they are borne by the larger society.

I have been fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time to have met some of the grand old men of the steam hobby; I have collected all of the steam hobby periodicals—Steam Car Developments and Steam Aviation, Light Steam Power, The Steam Automobile, Steam Power Quarterly, Steam Calliope, Modeltec, Live Steam, and the Steam Automobile Club of America Bulletin, as well as many steam boat periodicals. I have collected the classic steam texts as they are being thrown out of libraries and offered for sale on the used book internet market. I have been given access to the files of Bob Lyon who collected much and saved all and who was the first head of the Steam Automobile Club of America, founded by him in 1957. This material was preserved by his successor as SACA president, R. A. Gibbs. His son, Ed Gibbs, saved it all and gave it to me to keep. I have looked at, sorted through, and made scans of 20 file cabinets full of material from the twins, Calvin and Charles Williams, of Ambler, Pennsylvania. These files contain detailed records of the work of three generations in steam as well as a collection of reports not available anywhere else. I was given the steam literature collections of the late Bill Seiple, who attended many local steam meets and recorded most of them and of NASA engineer Doug Garner when he cleaned his garage out. I am the beneficiary of a complete listing of Society of Automotive Engineers technical papers relating to steam that Dave Nergaard has collected during his lifetime. Ken Helmick has put together a CD with 5,000 steam related patents on it in a searchable form. From George McNeir II in Wilmington, North Carolina I received the Stover engine and boiler that is all that is left of Professor Stover from the University of Pennsylvania lifetime’s work in steam. I was at the late R. A. Gibbs’ auction in 1995 and purchased many home made and unique steam engines. I collected much of Bill Cartland’s home made steam engines and boilers and, more than that, have several hundred pages of his hand written thoughts and designs that distill a lifetime of work in steam. I have most of the steam things that the late John Wetz made. These are enormously clever designs, to be appreciated the more once one gets past the fabrication. John did not have much money to work with when making things. These are the main sources of information that I have access to and that I uniquely have access to. Something is learned from everyone that I come into contact with and this is not the place for an exhaustive listing of all of the knowledge available about steam.

All of these sources of knowledge have put me in a position unique in this world to present the story of modern steam developments. I take this responsibility seriously. My only wish is that I had the awareness, this ‘Road to Damascus’ experience, much earlier in my life.

There is an assumption in this modern day and age that all information is available on the internet, accessible with a little word description and a clicking of the mouse. It has been my experience that this is not true. Not only do I find very little solid steam information available on the web, I also find much of the easily accessible information; that put out by the proponents of Tesla turbines and complex rotary engines, to be less than useful. Often what is self-described as being modern and efficient is neither.

I hope that the reader will find this digest of the work that has been done in steam to be as interesting as I have found it.

7 Responses to About

  1. This is a good article. Thank you.
    I agree with you. Steam engines could be made really practical with modern technology.

    • tkimmel3 says:

      I am not certain which article you are referring to, however I accept the compliment. What modern technology brings to steam power is all of the work that has been done with other engines and at some point with new materials such as high temperature alloys and ceramics. We cannot do the engineering development work with materials but at the level we are working only do good designs. The limit of steam engine practicality and efficiency has always been temperature and lubrication. At some point, for third world countries, a lower tech product using cast iron would be the most practical as it can be cast locally and machined easily. For some applications the high temperature plastics are a good idea. Thermodynamic efficiency can be traded for something that does not corrode or need lubrication. As someone said, engineering is a series of compromises. It is my opinion that steam power is the best use of the combination of solar concentrator heat when available. and at night bio-fuel supplied heat. Heat storage is a much better solution than batteries for storing power. I could go on. There is a great deal of work to do to make a good steam power plant. Tom Kimmel

  2. Brook Drumm says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading various entries for a couple hours…. staying up late dreaming about owning a steam engine someday. Thanks for all your work here.

    I am an inventor and want to build a steam powered car. I am a newbie to this, but will heed your sage wisdom and learn from history. So where do you recommend newbies start? Is there an engine conversion you recommend? A build-from-scratch set of plans? What is the current state of the art? I can buy, convert, or build from scratch. I have a full machine shop and lots of geniuses at my disposal 🙂

    Really interested in your to-date conclusions of the type of engine we should be pursuing. Can you save me from going down all the wrong paths and point down a right path to begin?

    willing to learn.

    • tkimmel3 says:

      October 23, 2014 Dear Brook Drumm, Thanks for the compliment and that is the reason I have put up information on the internet. I am putting up as much as I can and have the time. The short answer is that it is not easy. The second answer is that you should learn from what several others have found out from experience. I am thinking of Jay Carter, the Oak Ridge MSS people, and Pete Barrett. Each of those three started with a VW–two Beetles and one hatchback. The hubris was to think that they could design and make something that would fit easily and work perfectly from the start. After each of them worked on the project they learned the same lesson which is that any steam power plant needed to be breadboarded first. Therefore I recommend a stationary steam power plant to start with so that each of the components is tested and that they all match, in other words that each compliments the rest of them. The burner and heat exchanger need to be matched with the water pumping system. It goes on. At the least one should start with a pickup truck and take the bed off and replace it with the largest flatbed that one can put on the vehicle. This will give enough room to work. Everyone who has made a steam car has found that they spend four times as much time taking things apart in order to get at all of the parts as they do really working on steam power. There are two build from scratch plans–one by Pete Barrett that uses an air-cooled VW engine as the crankcase and crankshaft and connecting rods. The cylinders and valve train are machined and bolted on separately. Pete used only one bank of two cylinders, although with a larger boiler one would be better off with all four cylinders. The Oak Ridge people used a Hirth three cylinder two-cycle snow mobile engine as the basis and machined their own cylinders to bolt on. The MSS people also took an in-line six cylinder Ford engine and sawed in two and made a three cylinder out of it using the original block and pistons as cross-heads. What many people have done is to use a 20 hp Stanley engine and put a modern monotube boiler in it. It would take too long to argue all of the points to be made there. However, what most people do not know is that a 20 hp Stanley engine puts out 65 hp. The reason for the number 20 is because that is all the steam that the boiler could make with the original Stanley burner. These examples and the blueprints are all here at my shop. Therefore I recommend that you start by reading all of the back issues of the steam club’s publications. Then I suggest a visit to my shop and library here in SW Michigan. The really basic problem that you will have in doing this project is the same one that has cursed almost all previous steam people–you are an inventor. I am told that therapy helps. If you can get over that hurdle then there is a chance of success. Keep in touch. Tom Kimmel

  3. Prospect Farms says:

    I look forward to reading your books. Your prose is easy-to-read and explanatory. Funny too. Your knowledge seems comprehensive. Good work, good luck, and thanks.

  4. Steve Jones says:

    I have a question. Could one build a down draft boiler/gasifier that produces steam to generate electricity and at the same time will heat water for a closed loop home radiator system, while also heat home hot water for bathing etc. Would you need coils in the boiler and possibly tube around the exhaust for the hot household water?


    • tkimmel3 says:

      November 13, 2015 Dear Steve Jones: The short answer is yes, everything you mentioned can be done and certain components are well-developed and well-tested. Any clean burning wood burner is, by definition, a gasifier. That means that the wood is heated up so as to drive off the volatiles (smoke to the lay person) which is then pre-heated and burned with secondary combustion air at a temperature approaching 2,000 degrees F so that it is completely clean burning. By that time the wood is pure carbon, and it will burn cleanly and at high heat. In practice fresh charges of wood will be thrown in on top of the glowing coals to continue the cycle. The last question, about using this wood fired electrical steam generator for heat is likewise easily answered. The most efficient steam engine one can get these days will approach 20% efficiency. Most small units will be closer to 10%. That means that most of the heat from burning the wood will be exhausted from the engine as steam. For many reasons, involving water chemistry and all, one will want a closed water system, where all of the steam is condensed and re-used. That is easily done by submerging a coil of tubing or a radiator or something that has a lot of metal surface into a big tank of water. That will heat the water which can be pumped around and used for hydronic heating–the latest buzz word. Steam can be produced by any kind of a water tube welded up steam generator or a mono-tube one made from coils of tubing, usually 1/2″ schedule 40 black iron. What is not available commercially is a good small steam engine. No one makes these things, few design good ones, and there is no mass-production, which is necessary for anything to be economical. However, the good news is that some people somewhere know how to design good efficient steam engines, and so we have the designs. All that is needed now is money. For a started I suggest purchasing a casting kit from Gary Hadden of Holly, Michigan and machining it to make a nice modern and efficient steam engine. Many people have thought of making such a system–everyone from preppers to back-to-the-earthers to normal people; little joke there. I have the information in my library/museum/collection and will share that with anyone. Tom Kimmel

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