Strange steam making

The beauty of steam is that any heat source makes it.  Once made it becomes power.  Historically heat came from wood, then coal, then hydrocarbons, and then nuclear fusion, or is it fission, and now it is going back to  wood, a carbohydrate made of glucose molecules, and solar energy.  For some people it appears that making steam with heat is either too simple or too complex because they want to do it some other way.

I am going to list the other methods with the comment that they are uniformly bad ideas.  Most of the time I attempt to be polite and diplomatic.  It is a struggle.  We do not have the time, space, or psychic energy to be polite today.

The first bad idea is cavitation.  Someone figured out that a metal cylinder with gouges milled into it with an end mill and when submerged in a tank of water and rotated at high speeds so that cavitation–the forming and collapsing of steam bubbles–happens a lot will turn mechanical power into steam with over 90% efficiency.  Therefore they want to make steam that way forgetting that the rotating power is usually an electric motor and the main reason to make steam is to generate electricty and thus this exercise in the conservation of energy and thermodynamics will barely and with good luck end up with 20% of the electricity started with.  It is an idea, just not a good one.

The next bad idea is microwaves.  Someone read that microwaves heat water at a high degree of efficiency and thus we need to make steam that way.  Similar comments can be made about conservation of energy as the above paragraph.  What one concludes is that steam has a magical attraction to many people.  It would be more convenient if those people excited about steam had taken physics in high school.

Another method of confusing energy is to use electricity to make steam.  We are blessed with two ways: the most obvious is a resistance wire and if one does not like that then there is a way to take alternating current and bounce it back and forth between two plates immersed in water, heating it by some means of internal friction.  The efficiencies of turning electricity into heat into steam do not need to be addressed because the overall efficiency is bad.  If a person gained some advantage in torque or power transmission or drive train and drive cycle efficiency over using electricity directly then one might make an argument for this long way around the barn.  Electricity, no friend of mine, appears to be a reliable method of generating large amounts of torque; at least good enough to operate heavy freight trains.

The latest way I heard of recently is ultrasound.  There is little that I can say at this point in the discussion because of the mental exhaustion induced by the above interesting ideas.



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LaMont Boiler

For Blog002


This schematic of the LaMont was copied from the book: “Steam Power Stations” by Gustaf Gaffert 1940 and it has all of the other types of modern boilers in it also.  There are many advantages to the LaMont.  It is like the monotube in that all of the heat exchange takes place in small water tubes coiled up in some fashion, thus being safe, cheap relatively, and compact.  It is a water level boiler and thus easy to control and certainly easier to control than any monotube known to man.  It is more compact.  People who know say that it has 40% of the tubing of a regular monotube to make the same amount of steam.  It is much more reliable because there are no dry or steam filled tubes where the flame is the hottest.  It lends itself to multi-path, another way to be more compact and efficient.  The trick is in the centrifugal circulating pump that pumps against a 5-10 psi head circulating water at the rate of 5-10 times the evaporation rate the main purpose of which is to scour steam bubbles from nucleate boiling off the sides of the tubes where they insulate the water from the hot tube walls, limiting heat exchange capacity.  The problem is that there are no off-the-shelf circulating pumps available.  Only a few coils need to be in the circulating circuit.  The superheater and economizer sections are normal monotubes and probably with extended surfaces (fins) for better heat exchange.  These are buried so the hottest part of the fire does not get near them.  A person can go on at some length.  The purpose here is merely to show the schematic and thus to get the name spelled correctly.


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Besler airplane

Last month I interviewed Gene Burrows out in LaHarpe, Kansas and he was around the SoCal steam world in the 1960’s knowing Chadwell O’Connor and Bill Besler and mostly the Lantermans.  Here is what Gene said about Besler’s steam airplane flight; that Besler made it only for publicity and flew it only once.  The publicity was a great success because many reporters were there with cameras all of whom were expecting it to blow up either in the air or on the ground.  When Bill landed he taxied over to the parking spot, reversed the engine and backed it in.  As a result of the steam airplane he got the navy contract during WWII for smoke generators and made a lot of them and made money with them.  The smoke generators used coils and burners, just like a steam engine.  The only difference is that heavy bunker oil was injected into the hot coils instead of water.   Once Gene saw Besler at Newport Beach and he came up behind him and said he was planning on putting a steam engine into an airplane and without turning around Bill said “Put it in an ultralight”.

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The Perfect Future Farm

This topic has great relevance to steam power because the end result is peak electricity production.  In order to accomplish this goal there needs to be a complete system in place.  Few people have the knowledge to design a complete system, one that uses modern steam, bio-fuel production, standard agriculture materials handling, drying and storage of fuel, and wind and solar power.  This whole business sits on a farm and makes income for the farmer.  The system uses ferro-cement, and specifically pre-stressed ferro-cement made with a system I developed years ago and for which I was under-capitalized.

This electrical generating plant is designed to be placed on a typical American farm of a thousand acres or so that is in the cash crop business.  Cash crops are corn and soy beans, for the urban dweller.  The purpose is to make distributed power to sell to the existing grid and this presumes laws requiring the utilities to purchase power.  The power can be generated during peak usage times, and thus is of much greater value than power made randomly and irregularly, as happens with wind and solar.

The explanation will be long and involved and every piece has to work together for this to make sense.  Some faith will be needed during the explanatory process, but little faith will be needed at the end.  Here are the reasons this makes sense and also the reasons it will work.  To begin with an American farm is already a small business, albeit one with high capital investments.  Usually we are talking about $5 million in land, $1 million in buildings and facilities, and $2 million in equipment–tractors, combines, and semi-trucks.  The main difference between this business and other businesses is the extreme seasonality of the work.  I do not know for certain, but it appears to me that there is a month in the spring and a month in the fall when most of the farm equipment is used.  The second difference between modern farming and other manufacturing is the very low rate of hired help.  Most of the work is done by the farm family, hence the very large pieces of equipment.  Back to the farm being a small business; it already has an office, a computer, a book keeper, a banker, and an accountant.  Therefore everything is in place to run a business.

The second item needed to be in the electricity business is fuel.  Of the several sources of bio-fuel, the first one would be from marginal land.  Almost every farm has hills, ravines, poorly drained land or steep land or just plain unfertile land.  Almost every farm has a wood lot.  In other words there is usually land that cannot be economically used for growing cash crops.  This land can be used to grow bio-fuels.  When looking at bio-fuels what one is looking for is dry tons of cellulose per acre per year that can be burned.  There are two kinds of trees good for this, and because they coppice; willows and poplar.  The technique is to plant these in rows close together and every two years cut them about a foot or so from the ground.  Coppicing means that many small branches grow from the stump achieving maximum productivity on a two year harvest cycle.  The other crops are grasses, either Panicum virgatum, Miscanthus sinensis, Arondo donax, or whatever grows in that climate or whatever needs to be grown for ideological purposes, which is why native prairie grasses are talked about so much.  Other bio-fuels are straw, corn stover, rotten or out of date seed corn, cattle manure, or wood from land clearing.

The bio-fuel crops are then harvested in the off-season for cash crop farming.  Grasses will be harvested in the fall after frost and when dried the most and before the leaves fall off.  Wood will be harvested in the spring either just before or after spring planting.  Most of the existing agricultural equipment can be used to harvest, compact, and transport the fuel.

Storage and drying is important.  The most practical method is to use a poly covered gutter connected greenhouse.  The cost of materials is about $5 a square foot.  A concrete floor will cost almost that much again.  These structures can be made quite high or tall, with 20 feet being within reason, giving a large volume.  The beauty of a poly covered greenhouse is how much it heats up in the summer when the sun is shining.  It will heat up some in the winter when the sun is shining.  If the structure is covered with tempered glass, a possibility if one can afford the extra cost, then heat is reflected back  into the structure, causing it to heat up even more.  Otherwise a double layer of poly with air blown between the layers, standard practice, gives some insulation value.  Therefore the large gutter connected structure would be loaded up with dry material in the fall and wet material in the spring and be kept dry from the rain and heated up by the sun.  Later on we will discuss the great benefit of hot humid air as it goes up a solar chimney and how we can use the energy from that air flow to power a turbine.  For now we have solved the fuel storing and drying issue.

Some fuel processing is needed.  The less the energy input the better and that is why we want to avoid shredding, pelletizing, grinding, or anything besides shearing, which takes relatively little energy.  Straw and grass would be baled in the large round bales.  Shrubs or wood branches would be bundled or sheared for transportation and then processed as little as possible for burning.  Cattle manure would be dried in the gutter connected to be handled as a solid.  In parts of the country everything from orange peels to olive pits will be used for fuel.  Almost any agricultural by-product is cellulose and thus has potential for fuel.

Other sources of fuel will present themselves as the market develops.  The beauty of every large farm having one of these systems is that transportation is minimized.  One of the better potential fuels is glycerin, which is a by-product of bio-diesel production.  It is difficult to burn alone but should be possible with other fuels.  There is always sawdust where there is the lumber industry.  We cannot anticipate all of the future by-products of food and manufacturing, we just assume they will show up sometime.

The next thing we need is a large silo shaped structure and this will be made from ferro-cement panels used as permanent forms and poured with concrete.  It will be constructed with minimum labor and in a weather protected enclosure and be useful as a wind mill base or a solar chimney or for grain storage for the other farm products.  The silo is not critical to getting the electricity made, it just will make the whole system work better.

The steam engine will be a 500 or 1,000 hp piston engine, or several ganged together.  The latest designs are achieving good efficiencies, certainly better than the 6% the old coal fired railroad locomotives did.  They had to be mobile and thus could not afford efficient heat exchangers.  Several of these engines are being designed.  Engineering development will be needed.  It is possible to use a stationary Skinner Uniflow engine, or even to just copy one of them.  At 200 rpm they are quite massive for the power produced.  The burner and boiler, or more precisely the combustion chamber and heat exchanger, will be of modern design.  Good combustion burns completely and cleanly.  Good heat exchange will probably be a natural circulation water tube design that uses standard pipe of 21′ lengths with the fewest fittings or welding needed for construction.

The condenser is critical, and here is where the solar chimney comes in for good air flow without requiring energy inputs.  If possible, the waste heat will be used to heat buildings.  This is something that will develop organically.  We, right now, do not need to figure out all possible side benefits to making electricity from bio-fuels because once this becomes common someone or more probably everyone will figure out what to do with the extra heat.

As long as the steam engine and infrastructure for making electricity and getting it onto the grid are in place, then it is logical to make solar heat using troughs.  It almost makes sense to use a flat plat collector system to make steam, it is just not quite hot enough at saturation temperature to make efficient steam and therefore some extra reflectors or concentrators will be needed.  Just roughly estimating, a 100 foot square area will produce 100 hp when the sun is overhead.  Therefore not a whole lot of room is needed to produce enough solar power to be practical.  What is needed is cheap and reliable.  One would think that big solar troughs rolling on an area of flat ground to follow the sun would be a good way to start.  I, of course, would make these out of pre-stressed ferro-cement.  Once solar heat is made, then we will want to store the heat.  Here, again, the issue is money and reliability and not necessarily perfect efficiency.  I have many ideas on how this can be done.

And so we now have a system that will produce somewhere between $100 and $200 an hour worth of electricity.  All that is needed next is to look at capital investment and capital cost, meaning interest rates.  The unknown factor is carbon credits, tax incentives, and whatever else may be coming down the pipeline of political machinations.  One may want to keep in mind that the political will is fickle.  What it gives it can take away.

As the alert reader will note; this system has many highly technical parts.  One needs to know how farms work, how steam engines work, how greenhouses work, how good combustion works, and how solar reflectors work.  The reason we do not have these things all over the place now and instead have the landscape festooned with really complex wind turbines is because no one understands how each of the components work.  It takes a broad knowledge base to put this system together.  It is, likewise, not something that an engineer can design.  It is something that an engineer can make work once someone else has designed it.  Therefore the reader is fortunate to have my experience and skills and knowledge in agriculture, greenhouses, steam engines, solar collectors and making electricity.

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More cheap steam novels

A recently acquired book is “The Two Georges, A Novel of Alternate America, 1996” by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove.  This book involves steam automobiles that are referred to as “steamers” and without explanation or discussion or any history.  The main plot of the book involves an alternate history where George Washington and King George II made peace and thus the world turned out to be different.  Transportation at the end of the 20th Century was by dirigible and steamers, thus implying that it was American inventiveness that took the world from the first industrial revolution of steam power to the second industrial revolution of internal combustion engines.   The steamers appear to have a Stanley type of a boiler, because it takes 8-10 minutes to get steam pressure up.  Sometimes the pilot light is left on or maybe it is just the heat in the boiler so pressure is up and ready to go.  At other times the burner is turned up by the driver for more reserve pressure when driving.  The good news is that a battery powered sparker starts the burner from inside the car.  The writers of this book have never been in a real steam car because they talk about putting it into gear to go places and in selecting one of three gears for going down the road.  I am going to write them a letter encouraging them to ask me for technical advice on their next book that involves steam power.

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Heat Soaking

After a person has burned out a few superheater sections of a monotube boiler everyone, without exception, will stop by and say “all you needed to do was to let it heat soak; everyone knows that”.   What they do not say is that they learned the lesson by burning out their share of superheaters.  They also do not say why they did not mention this delicate subject to the new steam person before the superheaters were burned out.

The new steam person may not be aware of the melting point of steel.  All you need to know is that it is below the temperature of combustion of burning fuel.  Therefore any boiler has the potential for burning out, melting, developing holes, or generally failing.  What keeps the hot end of a monotube from getting hot and melting is steam flowing through it, hence cooling it off.

The problem has to do with getting one of these things started from cold.  In a Doble style of a boiler the burner is at the top and the water is at the bottom and the top half of the coils is empty of water.  So, when the burner comes on it has to push combustion gases past all of the cold steel tubing which has a lot of specific heat in it, or lack thereof, and so the gases are cooled off by the time they get to the part with water so the water does not get heated up very fast and so there is no steam being made to move through the pipe to cool it.

The solution is to turn the burner on for 10 seconds or so and then to turn if off for 20 seconds and then to repeat many times.  This gives the heat in the upper coils time to flow through the pipe and heat up the water.  After a while steam is made, pressure comes up on the pressure gauge, and then a valve can be opened to let some steam flow.  Usually some hot water spits out and whatnot until hot steam is getting made.  Then it is ready to go to the engine.  If the engine has a dog clutch then the engine is warmed up.  If not then one has to slowly roll the automobile around the yard rocking it back and forth to let the water out and warming up another few hundred pounds of iron.  One does not want to go out on the freeway until everything is warmed up or many embarrassing things will happen.

Another solution to heat soaking is to have an electrically powered small water pump all hooked up to pump water into the superheater so that as soon as it is hot the driver can turn on the pump, open up the valve, and get steam flowing through the superheater section cheerfully cooling it down so the burner can be left on continuously to heat up the rest of the coils and the water so contained.

The lesson to be learned is that if one understands the problem then one can figure out how to deal with it.  When working with steam no one tells you what the problems are going to be.

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Steam Power Systems Bus

There were three California Clean bus projects that became operable in 1972: SPS, Brobeck, and Lear.  The three developers were given about two years to design, build, test, and put into regular bus operation, a steam powered bus.  The purpose was to produce clean air and they each made a bus that ran in regular service, at least for a test period.  There is a publication labeled “California Steam Bus Project, Final Report of the Project Manager” put out by Scientific Analysis Corporation, with Kerry Napuk being project manager, and it is not dated.  One of the most intelligent quotes I have seen in years is in this report.

Here is the quote: “Finally, any comparison of three steam buses built in two years at a total cost of $8 million to production diesels developed and produced over forty years at perhaps a total cost of $10 billion raises certain questions.”  The problem found with these three buses was fuel economy.  The specifications for the project were to not take up any passenger space and to use an existing bus chassis and to get everything done in a short time.  Everything had to be crammed into a small space.  Because the bus thing was funded by the California legislature it was dependant on the whims of the political winds.  There was no assurance that anything would be funded or purchased after these test models, and nothing more was done, making it difficult for the three companies to recruit and keep good staff.  Much was learned and nothing was retained from the experience.

Here are some photos of the SPS, later to be called Dutcher Industries, a company founded and funded by Cornelius Dutcher, whose main fame was having been a Harvard classmate of Kennedy and whose secondary fame having to do with inherited money from the family who made it building the Panama Canal, steam bus.  Dutcher attempted to use his money do make a difference and to do some good.

He got snookered by Ken Wallis right after Bill Lear parted ways with Wallis, and, in fact, most of the Lear steam engineering staff went to work for Dutcher.  Wallis did not last long at Dutcher either and he went on to making  jet airplane silencers, if the memory is correct.

The photos tell the story of what was made, how it fit, and the amount of engineering development that took place,  but there is an interesting story coming from the people who worked on the bus and it had to do with acceleration tests.  The lesson is one with many parts.  Those of us who are experienced steam people know two important things; buses do a lot of stopping and starting, and, steam engines are natural hybrids in that they are very good at stored power.  To modify that last point, a steam power plant is very good at stored power if it is designed for that.  Instead, the SPS people designed their bus steam power plant for conventional steady state high efficiency operation.  They made a monotube boiler, although the photos show some mulit-path something going on.

The people working on the project told me that when it came time to wind the boiler coils they started with a piece of pipe 500 feet long.  They had to drill a hole in the wall of the shop and put traffic cones out in the parking lot and have half the crew standing out there to keep trucks and whatnot from running over the pipe.  A boiler, or more precisely, a steam generator, needs two main things: it needs a burner putting out the btu’s required and then it needs sufficient square footage of surface area to get the heat transferred to the water.  The SPS people got this all figured out right and it worked and then the government told them that they had to pass an acceleration test.

So they found an abandoned air force runway two miles long and did a standing start flat out acceleration and what happened is what an experienced steam person would have been able to tell them if he had been plied with enough beers.  As soon as the accelerator was stepped on, the steam throttle opened wide open and the pressure in the boiler dropped a few hundred psi and all of the hot water in the 500 plus feet of tubing produced a bunch of steam bubbles all along its length, as anyone studying Keenan and Keyes steam tables would have been able to predict.  These bubbles pushed a whole lot of hot water through the tube into the superheater part, flooding it, and then either cool steam or hot water went into the engine.  Cool steam and hot water do not have much energy in them and thus the steam engine was only able to produce a small fraction of its design horsepower.  The bus rolled along for a mile before the steam generator emptied itself of enough water so the burner would have a long enough superheater  to look at so it could produce good quality steam.  Then the bus took off at full design power just about when the brakes needed to be applied to prevent running off the end of the runway.

There are any number of good easy and practical solutions to getting a steam bus to accelerate rapidly and then to build up stored energy while waiting at the stop light to make another acceleration run for half a block.  It is much easier to do this with a steam engine than it is to accelerate a diesel engine/automatic transmission combination, in fact.  The steam bus would have many advantages over the diesel both in acceleration and in quietness while idling while loading and unloading passengers.  It is interesting that no one told the clean air bus people that they were expected to do an acceleration run, so they could design for it.  It is even more interesting that the people working on the bus never figured out what a bus did, or what a steam power plant did well.  I attribute this failing to them all being very good engineers.  What is needed on any new steam development project is a good designer.  Only after there is a good design does one want to turn an engineer loose on the project.

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