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Author Topic: Will Steam Make a Comeback?  (Read 974 times)
MoonlitRain
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Canada Canada



« on: February 07, 2017, 10:20:31 pm »

I'm curious as to whether or not anyone thinks, given the right (by which I mean disastrous) conditions, that we couldn't see another era in which steam power becomes a viable source of energy and motive power? I don't have a particular opinion on this topic, I'd just like to know what people think.
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Hektor Plasm
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« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2017, 11:30:48 pm »

Well, to be technically correct, both Power Stations (gas(?), nuclear, coal, geothermal) and Sea Transport, (except for gas turbine and diesel piston) all use steam as the motive fluid to drive them; so you could say it's not really gone away to start with!

 Grin

HP
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MoonlitRain
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« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2017, 04:02:15 pm »

It's funny because I was like, "Oh yeah! Steam turbines!" I guess what I was thinking about was some future scenario in which we'd have to go back to steam for many more things.
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Gregor
Snr. Officer
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United States United States



« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2017, 02:10:14 am »

What Hektor P says is so correct, and I was laughing because I just wrote a short piece on the subject.

On another note, I was talking to a survivalist who is waaaayy into machining, making guns and ammo and all sorts of things for the apocalypse. He was going on about how he has
generators and fuel stashed. I mentioned the whole ElectroMagnetic Burst scenario thing, and just running out of gummy fuel. He was a bit put off by my nay saying. About 90% in jest,
I did a hard-sell on him about the greatness of steam engines, and their associated fuel and abilities. He looked at me funny and as my work was done I left.  About 4 years later I heard he moved
more into the country (Tennessee or West Virginia), and that along the way he built a steam engine.

Glad I am I didn't mention Tesla Coils.    YaY Steam!   -g
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Athanor
Zeppelin Admiral
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Keep them off-balance and brazen it out!


« Reply #4 on: February 10, 2017, 12:33:28 am »

The wonderful thing - or one of he wonderful things - about a steam engine (turbine or piston) is that with slight modification it can use virtually anything as fuel - natural gas, oil, coal, wood waste, bagasse (sugar cane waste), all kinds of agricultural waste products - or it can run happily on geothermal steam or waste heat from industrial processes. Most internal combustion engines require very specific, refined fuels, and trying to operate a petrol (gasoline) engine on diesel fuel, or vice versa, can have, let's say, interesting consequences.

A steam engine is also self starting, whereas to get an internal combustion engine going you have to either wind it laboriously by hand, or have some kind of electric starter. And few are the modern i-c engines that have a hand-starting backup; if your starter goes on the fritz, or your battery dies, well, you're just plumb outta luck.

And - something that has puzzled me for a long time - if i-c engines are, supposedly, so efficient, how come they need cooling systems? Combustion of fuel in the cylinder of an i-c engine produces far more energy than the engine can actually make use of, so the excess energy has to be dissipated into the environment. Steam engines don't have this problem.

 It's interesting that fully 40-50% of the power produced by an average gas turbine generator comes from a steam turbine running on waste heat exhausted from the gas turbine. Which poses the question; why bother with the gas turbine in the first place - why not simply have a gas fired steam boiler to run a steam turbine generator?

Long live Steam, I say!

Athanor.
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MoonlitRain
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Canada Canada



« Reply #5 on: February 10, 2017, 08:58:57 pm »

I concur with that sentiment and that's exactly the sort of thinking that I was doing with regard to a more widespread resurgence of steam power.
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Peter Brassbeard
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United States United States



« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2017, 04:58:46 pm »

And - something that has puzzled me for a long time - if i-c engines are, supposedly, so efficient, how come they need cooling systems?
Efficiency on any heat engine is limited by the temperature range across which they operate.  An internal combustion engine or gas turbine operates with a higher starting temperature working fluid, enabling more efficiency with ambient temperature as the floor temperature.  In principle you could operate a steam turbine starting at the higher temperature, but the steam pressure at those temperatures is impractical.  So a combined cycle with steam at the lower temperature range becomes a more practical means of getting the efficiency.
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Athanor
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Keep them off-balance and brazen it out!


« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2017, 07:24:09 pm »

I know the thermodynamic theory (I have an HNC in mechanical engineering, considered in Britain to be "almost" equivalent to a degree). But the fact remains, with a conventional I-C engine, you can't use the extra energy given by the higher initial temperature; you have to dump up to half of it into the environment. With a condensing steam engine, theoretically at least, you can exhaust to much lower than ambient pressure, thus the initial pressure (and temperature) isn't so critical.

 Even so, with a conventional superheated steam boiler, steam temperatures of 1600oC are not unusual; comparable to the transient maximum temperature in a diesel engine cylinder or a gas turbine. Also, a gas turbine in itself isn't very efficient, since anything from 40 to 70% of the power produced is used to drive the compressor. I seem to recall that the two gas turbine locomotives tried out on British Railways Western Region back in the 50's burned about five times as much fuel as a diesel for the same power output - due mainly to the high exhaust temperature. More modern G-T applications give better results, but the gas turbine remains inherently inefficient - which is the reason a G-T generation plant has to be backed up by a steam plant to make use of the exhaust heat.

Athanor.
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cossoft
Gunner
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United Kingdom United Kingdom


« Reply #8 on: February 12, 2017, 01:03:14 am »

...given the right (by which I mean disastrous) conditions...

I think not. 

By disastrous conditions I think that you're referring to some sort of appopalipse of the Mad Max variety?  The flaw in this reasoning is the presence of knowledge.  You can destroy machinery and infrastructure, but the knowledge remains.  Your knowledge of how a Honda 5000 generator operates would in all probability remain.  You might even find a manual.  Even the knowledge that the machine existed would be sufficient to strive for it's rebuilding.   Gooey stuff came out of the ground, we cooked it and built a piston type machine that span a magnet than made magic that lit a thread inside a vacuum.  And we remember that it was good.  So if we have the machinery /precision to make a steam engine, ergo we can make a petrol engine / gas turbine.

Also, consider the locations where appopalipsi have occurred.  Cuba, Gaza and Bangladesh to name a few.  Nobody builds steam engines.  They all have those Honda generators and drive rusty Nissan pickups.

Unless of course you have an extinction level event and nature reboots itself.  But in that scenario, anything is possible. So the dilemma posed is, should we all be hoping for Earth to be sterilised by a near by super nova and a few billion years later we might all have steam flying packs and ray guns?  Or wings.
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MoonlitRain
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Canada Canada



« Reply #9 on: February 13, 2017, 10:43:44 pm »

It isn't so much that people would use steam because they've forgotten how to use current technology as it is that it might provide a supplemental or alternate source of energy. There's also the issue of access to petroleum products to address in the event of a massive disruption. As Athanor points out, steam engines can run on a lot of different types of fuel, so they aren't limited to what we're pulling out of the ground.
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Athanor
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Canada Canada


Keep them off-balance and brazen it out!


« Reply #10 on: February 15, 2017, 01:26:38 am »

All the indications are that we've already passed Peak Oil, i.e. all the oil that's easy to  reach has already been pumped. What remains is oil shale, tar sands, and residual oil in deep wells that need seawater injection in order to get the oil out. We can make liquid fuel from coal, or from almost any organic feedstock, but the era of cheap abundant oil is almost over. I think steam, using coal, wood chips or agricultural waste products as fuel, may well have a role to play in the future.

We'll, no doubt, see.

Athanor.
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cossoft
Gunner
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United Kingdom United Kingdom


« Reply #11 on: February 18, 2017, 03:54:37 pm »

Several issues here. 

OECD data suggests global oil consumption is tanking due to economic slowdown /shale gas developments.  This is supported by the recent OPEC production cut to bolster falling oil price.  It would be cheap otherwise.
Global oil reserves are not a simple volume metric.  Reserves are linked to the cost of oil vis a vis covering extraction costs /field development.  At $300/barrel, it'll be worth while pressing it from my grandmother's teeth.
Burning anything organic produces CO2 which sets off the eco mentalists and is bad for polar bears.
Why would you make liquid fuel from coal when you can just burn the coal?  Would the processing energy consumption be offset by the increase in extractable energy /energy density? And if you refine coal down to a black sticky liquid, it starts to resemble stuff that already comes from Saudi Arabia.
What would you make the wood chipping machine lubricants from?  And the plastic drums the lubricants come in?

No, I think that we're stuck with oil for the present, and then hopefully someone will have the foresight to properly invest in fusion research.  If we're lucky some of the 60 new fission reactors being planned /built will be successful in making steam the inorganic way.  I'm just lucky that I don't live anywhere near them.  I have lots and lots of red wine stashed just in case anyway...
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Athanor
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Keep them off-balance and brazen it out!


« Reply #12 on: February 19, 2017, 07:22:27 pm »

Why would you make liquid fuel from coal when you can just burn the coal? 


Good question. It's all a matter of application, I guess. Coal fired steam wagons carried loads on Britain's (and Europe's) roads until the 1930s, and it was mostly changes in taxation that saw them off in favour of petrol and diesel trucks. Coal fired steam cars have been built by enthusiasts, but not, I think, for day to day use. Coal fired steam boats, ships and trains of course, also lost out to either oil fired steam or to diesel engines...... it all seems to boil down to the fact that liquid fuels are easier to handle, transport and use than solid fuels. Coal to oil conversion technology was developed in Nazi Germany during WWII, mainly because Germany had lots of coal but little oil; one objective of the failed invasion of Russia was to capture the Baku oilfields. This failure, plus the Allies bombing the c--p out of German industry, was a major factor in the Nazi defeat.

You don't need wood chipping machinery specifically to produce wood chips; scraps, chips and dust occur as waste products of sawmilling and wood processing and have been used as fuel, either directly in a steam boiler or in a gasifier to produce a low calorific value combustible gas which can be burned as boiler fuel or in a gas engine. And lubricants, again, can be made from almost any organic feedstock. Rapeseed oil (canola) was used as a major component of steam locomotive lubricants, and castor oil was used in WWI aircraft engines, to give just two examples. Plastics, also, can be made from stuff other than oil.

As you say cossoft, it all comes down, in the end, to money. Oil at $300 per barrel would encourage drastic efforts to pull every remaining drop of oil from deep wells and tar sands, and render down everything from sawdust to slaughterhouse waste to municipal sewage - but could you afford to run your car on it?

We're looking at a mainly electric future, I think; whether from nuclear power (fission or fusion), wind, solar, tidal power or low grade coal. But small, efficient modern steam engines might still have their uses here and there.

Athanor.
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Peter Brassbeard
Zeppelin Captain
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United States United States



« Reply #13 on: February 20, 2017, 05:45:20 am »

In the neighborhood of $100/barrel (so I've heard) it becomes competitive to crack random waste biomass into light sweet crude oil.  A large portion of what gets thrown away as garbage is usable feedstock for this process.  This would seem to put a price limit on that fuel.
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BaronVonBoiler
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United States United States


Steampunk Railroader


« Reply #14 on: February 20, 2017, 07:20:50 am »

Personally, I do not believe we will ever see steam make the resurgence any advocate of the technology wants to believe in. Steam power will most likely continue to work silently in the background until it is ultimately phased out completely, and then it will rely on hobbyists and historians to keep the tech alive.

I do enjoy though following those attempts to bring steam back to mainline railroading. My favorite would ultimately be the American Coal Enterprises' proposal of the ACE-3000 locomotive. If there was a design that embodied "modern steam," that would be it. Unfortunately, the certain team members over-promised what the Enterprise could deliver and incorporated far too many complicated systems within the locomotive to market the idea to its investors. This discouraged the two main proponents of steam design, L. D. Porta and David Wardale, as they watched everything spiral out of control and destroy the future of the ACE-3000.

More recently, David Wardale was spearheading another project for modern mainline steam, this time in the United Kingdom. The 5AT Project was to build a new locomotive based on older designs, but thoroughly updated for efficiency and safety. Marketing was a different approach this time, focused more on tourism and mainline exhibition passenger runs. The project was cancelled in 2012 due to lack of funding and support, and now the same people focus their efforts on servicing and upgrading currently operating steam locomotives.

A few years ago, a new project began again here in the US: the Coalition of Sustainable Rail (CSR). The project is currently running tests on using torrefied-biomass as a coal replacement. Supposedly, the CSR claims that their "biocoal" is less expensive to produce than diesel fuel and is much more sustainable than both diesel and current coal resources. The group recently performed successful live steam experiments using the miniature steam railway found at the Milwaukee County Zoo, and hopes to do so this year on a full-size locomotive with the cooperation of the Everett Railroad here in Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the CSR plans to rebuild and modify the ATSF 3463 as a demonstrator for their biocoal fuel, and then to further evolve the technology into true modern steam locomotive. I highly recommend visiting their website, www.csrail.org.
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von Corax
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Prof. Darwin Prætorius von Corax


« Reply #15 on: February 20, 2017, 08:25:11 am »

Isn't "torrefied biomass" just an investor-sexy way of saying "charcoal?"
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Antipodean
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New Zealand New Zealand



« Reply #16 on: February 20, 2017, 09:36:00 am »

I have been interested in how to apply the steam engine principle in space - there is both heat and cold generated depending which side of the craft is facing the Sun.
There must be a way to change that into energy.
When the craft is rotating then the gas heats in a cylinder and expands pushing a piston. The other side is growing colder and pulls a corresponding piston. The crank they are fastened too should rotate.
The rotation of the craft would then move onto the next cylinder, repeating the cycle for that cylinder.
(If this idea is not already patented then I hereby apply the commons license and make it free for everyone to use.)
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BaronVonBoiler
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United States United States


Steampunk Railroader


« Reply #17 on: February 20, 2017, 10:47:24 am »

Isn't "torrefied biomass" just an investor-sexy way of saying "charcoal?"

It is similar, but hasn't quite become charcoal if I understand the process right, as carbonization is limited. Roasting temperatures remain at or below 300 degrees Celcius and the result is then ground down and mixed with a binding agent. This is formed into a pellet or briquette of similar density to coal, with lower levels of carbon and dust than charcoal, all the while firing similarly to the latter.

I suppose to be absolutely correct when referring to "biocoal," it is torrefied densified biomass.
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cossoft
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United Kingdom United Kingdom


« Reply #18 on: February 20, 2017, 03:44:16 pm »

I've had a read and a rethink.  There might be a use for wilderness /emergency situations (albeit I have to admit there are no current commercial examples and read my earlier comments regarding what the unfortunate do at the moment).

You used to get very small reliable steam engines that would fit on an office chair.  Coupled with an alternator, you'd have a means of making electricity from most combustible fuel sources.  If you live near woodland, you'd be laughing (if you weren't crying about the hurricane blowing the rest of your house down).  They're easy to maintain, and most importantly the fuel has no shelf life.  Petrol is said to have a maximum reliable shelf life of 1 year (with stabilisers) and the council get's cranky if you store several month's worth of petrol under the stairs.  You might get 15% efficiency but that's a zillion percent more than 0% and you'd be grateful.

This brilliant idea of mine has already been stolen by  Cyclone Power Technologies (I exercise my rights under the 1st Amendment to say this as a satirical work if they're reading this forum  Wink).  They purport to achieve 30% with the Schoell Cycle and seem to have convinced MIT Technology Review and the stock market (CYPW) that it's credible.  I'm not so sure.  Their web site is low on detail and I see that their company whilst still trading hasn't sold any units or realised any of their capitalisation.  Hmm, might be vapourware.  

When I go camping I have a wood stove that's basically a steel cone with a blow pipe at the base.  It's brilliant and works very well with all sorts of twigs.  It's simple, reliable and can use commonly available wood.  Perhaps there is a market for a small on demand emergency /wilderness power source.  It would have to compete with Honda et al. but some people also have solar panels when diesel is available.  I would be interested in engineering feedback...

PS. What's with the time?  I posted this at 1422 UK time.
« Last Edit: February 20, 2017, 05:49:27 pm by cossoft » Logged
19th Century Space Pilot
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Cererean
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« Reply #19 on: March 26, 2017, 09:09:58 pm »

Incorporate it into a combined heat and power system, and you might have a very useful and viable off grid system. Of course, you'll need batteries and hot water storage...
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