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.