The rebirth of steam

Could it be a good idea to power our future cars utilizing steam? It might sound a bit unlikely or perhaps even outdated (as it’s certainly been tried before), but according to modern-day scientists and car manufacturers , BMW being one of them, the steam engine could very well make a comeback. A well designed steam engine is considered as a potential alternative to the internal combustion engines used today. The re-introduction of this technique could be very promising to the powering of cars, rockets and maybe even space vessels in the (near) future. So how does it work?

First a bit of history. Steam force is the oldest form of mechanical traction. Although the first applications of steam in propelling a road vehicle were attempted in the 17th century, it was not until the advent of high pressure steam engines, in the early 1800s, that such vehicles became a practical proposition. Limitations in manufacturing technology and the poor condition of road surfaces, meant that nothing that could be realistically regarded as a ‘steam car’, in the sense of a car being suitable for personal transportation, was created until the end of the 19th century. That century was seen as the heyday of steam power, when steam locomotives dominated the railways.  The Stanley, produced by the Stanley Motor Car and Carriage Company, which still holds the land speed record for a steam powered automobile, was the last steam car taken out of production in 1925, when eventually being overtaken technologically by the internal combustion engine.  It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century when the conversion from steam on the rail took place and steam powered locomotives began to vanish. For a long time the steam powered engines were cumbersome. The old generators had the capacity of a few hundred megawatts. Technological developments and improvements in manufacturing techniques (partly brought about by the adoption of the steam engine as a power source) resulted in the design of more efficient engines that were smaller, faster, or more powerful, depending on the intended application. These steam powered generators can sometimes still be found in power plants and in sea vessels.

To indicate that a steam engine is viable today in cars, the German car manufacturer BMW is now developing a hybrid system that is powered by a steam engine. They named it the ‘Turbosteamer’ and it’s based on the same principle as the steam engine:  liquid is heated to form steam in two circuits and this is used to power the engine. The primary energy supplier is the high-temperature circuit which uses exhaust heat from the internal combustion engine as an energy source via heat exchangers. More than 80 percent of the heat energy contained in the exhaust gases is recycled using this technology. The steam is then conducted directly into an expansion unit linked to the crankshaft of the internal combustion engine. Most of the remaining residual heat is absorbed by the cooling circuit of the engine, which acts as the second energy supply for the Turbosteamer.

The modern usage of steam has several advantages over the use of other power sources. There is waste heat, from the burner exhaust and from the spent steam, which can be converted using thermo-electrics into extra electricity to increase the efficiency of the system. With the combustion taking place externally and being continuous and more easily regulated for temperature, oxidizers and fuel amount, these lower combustion temperatures and pressures create less toxic and exotic exhaust gases. Another benefit is that the engine requires no oil as the steam itself lubricates the moving parts. Problems with oil depletion and oil dependency could be battled using this technique. Environmental taxes therefore will also be considerably less as opposed to other mechanical techniques. So exploring the possibilities of steam powered techniques could be, once again, a profitable endeavor.

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One thought on “The rebirth of steam

  1. the claim that steam lubricates moving parts is unknown in 200 years of steam engineering – please elaborate

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