Archive for May, 2011

Choo choo!

Author: Fred Grenvile

Siemens Steam Engine

Steam Power

This little Item from Professor Elemental’s FB fanpage caught my attention and held it. See the words are a bit ironic to me. It reminds me of an a somewhat dim acquaintance of mine that I spent a lot of time battling with over the last decade and a half. That is of course the subject for a different venue, let’s just say in a battle of wits his kit of choice is the Shield of Evil Banality and the Club of Low Cunning. He can always quote someone else’s witticism that will at least have some of the same words as the topic at hand.

But enough about that. The real issue is that the conversation in question started with him mocking Jay Leno for his avid interest in steam power. He finally fell to the question, why is it that you can only every find kits for low horsepower steam engines, none of which are organized as motors? That’s a paraphrase. He was never so articulate. I’m sure that ultimately he was trying to use his degenerate version of Scientology Lingo to seem witty. But he quite unwittingly tumbled onto a fine oddity.

He, like so many, believes that the internal combustion engine has supplanted and obsoleted steam power. Professor Elemental touches on that in the song linked above. He also points out wind power as an obsolete tech. I believe t he point of the song is that we had our hay-day mowing with gasoline and now we’ll have to buckle down and settle for steam. The implication is that it’s some sort pennence for the excesses of the 20’th century. But nothing could be more erroneous.

After World War I many ships were being converted to Diesel engine and this was a short lived detour that seemed like the big thing for the future. Mr. Diesel’s design for internal combustion is neat and “for a petroleum engine” marginally efficient. It doesn’t approach the the power and efficiency of a top fuel dragster or formula racer, but it does all right. And really, who wants a nitro-methane supercharged drag cruise-liner?

But the point here is that the foray into diesel was mostly a non-starter for really big vessels. Those that retain diesel today are mostly hybrid, using diesel to charge batteries that then run electric motorized screws. Even that design was scrapped on Naval vessels where, the big cruisers, carriers and subs use a nuke. Now my “friend” above was only too avid to concede that Nuclear (for texans: Nukular) power was the bomb. It’s latest and greatest, why it’s New Technology! Hmmm.

Reactors were invented in the 1930’s and used in the development of atomic weapons. Very new. Internal combustion dates from the late 19’th century, why that’s at least 40 years earlier. But there’s a problem with nuclear power.

Contrary to the Stark Trek ™ and Sci Fi vision, reactors are just giant furnaces where (in a terribly crude, even primitive way) zirconium plated metal rods are piled up till they get hot enough to spontaneously boil water. Said water “coolant” is driven through of all things a steam turbine which rapidly cools it. Then it is condensed in a coil and recirculated. This massively “high tech” generator is our old friend the steam engine.

Given the intense heat and radiation of a nuclear furnace, it’s probable that other means of gaining power from it are possible. But let’s face it, we’ve been living the steam punk fantasy for the last two hundred years. By burning hydrogen, oxygen and catalysts in various compounds, our wonderful liquid fueled rockets the main engines on the Space Shuttle are ultimately a form of–yes–steam power.

We are building windmills more often now. And I’m very happy to see it. As for some good old medieval tech, how about the hoover water-wheel. But it’s makes us feel more sophisticated to use terms like hydro-electric, harassing thermal energy, or reaction engines. So be it. All hail the heat expansion of aqueous fluid to provide mechanical energy!

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