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Transportation Technology

US Team Seeks To Top Steam-Car Speed Record 108

Zothecula writes "Steam-engined vehicles are quaint, retro and obsolete ... right? Well, maybe not. The current land speed record for a steam-powered vehicle currently sits at 148 mph (238 km/h), set by the British car Inspiration team in 2009. Now, Chuk Williams' US Land Steam Record (USLSR) Team is hoping to steal that title in its LSR Streamliner, powered by a heat-regenerative external combustion Cyclone engine – an engine that could someday find common use in production automobiles."
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US Team Seeks To Top Steam-Car Speed Record

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  • by Rinnon ( 1474161 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:14AM (#35101886)
    You couldn't pay me to take that... thing up to 240 km an hour. It looks like a metal coffin on wheels.
    • Seconded ! I'm sure the guys know what they're doing but it seems to have a very narrow track (distance between wheels when viewed from the front). It looks kinda unstable. If any car geometrists (?!) can explain why it will, in fact, be stable I'd be interested.
      • Well they wanted a low drag shape, and with as narrow as it is there should be no problem burying it and the driver in the same hole. Could be even worse like a motor bike, no safety cage whatsoever.
      • by PseudonymousBraveguy ( 1857734 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:39AM (#35101936)

        Speed Record Cars like this are usually build to run in a straight line on a salt flat. If you don't have wind from the side, there is no need for much stability. Building the car as narrow as possible reduces the area exposed to the wind and thus reduces drag.

        Now if you try do drive that thing on a regular road, you'd probably not survive the first turn.

        • by mcrbids ( 148650 )

          Even so, just adding another foot or two on each side would make a *lot* of difference in stability. As it is, the width/height ratio is vanishingly small, and at the speeds involved, this just looks like a thrilling way to die!

    • True True!. [123.com]
  • by For a Free Internet ( 1594621 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:30AM (#35101914)

    Steam is burned water, a limited naturil resorse that should not be frittered away by greedy car owners. Water beloongs to all of us to share so don't waste it, ride a bike you stupid dickface!

    • Someone should not have missed the physics lessons.
    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
      The horror! Most bikes come with water bottles and since the bike's engine (ie you) consumes water, you are also "wasting" precious water.

      PS - ever heard of the WATER cycle? How about conservation of matter? You think all the water just disappears off the face of the Earth?

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Oh boy! Here comes that speech about fluoride, vodka and precious bodily fluids again!

    • by Merk42 ( 1906718 )
      The less water the better! You know how many deaths per year are attributed to water?
    • by kent_eh ( 543303 )
      You want to conserve the stuff? It's dangerous!!
      Take a look here [dhmo.org].
      We should be calling for the banning of it all together.

      But if this type of engine can produce useful energy while safely incinerating what you claim as a "limited naturil resorse" , then I'm all for it.
      • And what if there's a collision, or an accident, and the steam reservoir breaks open? Dangerous dihydrogen monoxide could make its way into the water table!

    • I don't know what's funnier, this post or the people trying to correct him.

    • From TFA: The steam engine used (in its commercial version) is closed-loop- it doesn't consume water, but recycles it by condensing it and reheating. On the other hand, because the speed attempt is short distance, the removed the condenser (I assume to save weight and allow for higher steam flow rates).
  • Waste Heat Engine (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PseudonymousBraveguy ( 1857734 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:31AM (#35101918)

    The Cyclone engine may be grat as a waste heat engine, i.e. to convert process heat back to some more useful type of energy. I doubt it's really usefull as primary engine, because converting fuel to heat and then heat to motion does not really sound more efficient than your usual internal combustion engine. And the main advantage "can burn all kind of alternative fuels"? Come on, I can do that with my diesel engine already. Increasing the efficiency of a car with a internal combustion/steam engine hybrid by using the waste heat of a combustion engine to gain some additional power could be a much better idea.

    • by sznupi ( 719324 )
      The way physics, thermodynamics (a bitch...), Carnot cycle works - it won't give much. Might harm things (added weight, etc.). There's a reason that's a waste heat.

      But who knows, steam itself might partly return [wikipedia.org]...
      • Well, the main reasons why otto and diesel engines don't reach the theoretical maximum efficiency of the otto or diesel cycle is that they lose energy to the cooling medium. If you could use some of that heat, you might close the gap between the theoretical maximum efficiency and the practical efficiency. The added weight will of course reduce the gain, but it still might be greater than zero.

        • by sznupi ( 719324 )
          Uhm...no, it's because practical implementations have limits (nvm general imperfections of the real world - the major thing for Otto are properties of fuel / octane number; for Diesel - materials of the engine). Cooling medium, efficient disposal of waste heat is required for the cycles to work!
          • Re:Waste Heat Engine (Score:5, Interesting)

            by 7-Vodka ( 195504 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @07:52AM (#35102218) Journal
            Well, if you look at what they are claiming to have already achieved, it's pretty good.

            Sure, the Carnot equations do predict that they have a lower theoretical maximum efficiency 1- dT/Th, however, they seem to make up for that in the following ways:

            1. more efficient combustion process
            2. recycling waste heat, not work heat, to get more heat to do work. (ie the heat that gets exhausted without going through the system)
            3. making use of the lower Th to use lighter materials and better design. The videos shows the kind of materials they use are much cheaper looking and lighter for example
            4. more useable tq and tq/vol ratio
            5. they might be able to drop transmissions, oil, other added weight
            6. They could probably harness heat off the brakes
            7. much cleaner and more flexible engine with a closed loop Rankine design
            8. They could end up with less maintenace and cost per maintenance too by the looks of it
            9. Their exhaust temps seem just about right to think about heating the cabin as a final efficiency boost in the winter too

            So, they give up some theoretical max efficiency to get a whole bunch of nice trade offs, and from the numbers they allege, those trade offs come back in terms of real world efficiency as well.

            It seems worth more investigation before writing it off.. Plus, it looks like a Mr. Fusion.

            • by sznupi ( 719324 )
              But they don't do that on top of another engine which already tries to optimize the hell out of its cycle. It would compromise efficiency of the former stage, weight of its cooler (BTW, heating the cabin in the winter is when the cooling works at its best...), et al.
            • The physics is undoubtedly good for a one-off run, but it is the chemistry that will determine whether steam engines can be brought to market.

              The physics are limited by Carnot equations, but current automobiles perform well below the theoretical limits. Steam engines have effective torques at very low RPMs and have much higher limits on RPMs than ICEs: they can come a lot closer to the theoretical limits. They also reduce the need for a complicated, and heavy, transmission. The power band is, IIRC, very s

      • by hcpxvi ( 773888 )
        "But who knows, steam itself might partly return... [via the proposed 5AT]"
        To some extent it already has, with the arrival of A1 Pacific N0. 60163 [a1steam.com] I saw this start off from Edinburgh Waverley a few months ago; the experience left me blubbing like a girl and temporarily rather deaf.
        • by sznupi ( 719324 )
          I've heard about it - but it would have to be a more regular service IMHO ... something which is the case near my place! [thewolszty...rience.org] (rather old engines of course) Might be useful, considering their relatively very wide requirements for the type of fuel.

          (seriously, completely regular (of "lowest", regional class even) services few times a day; I had a ride on one of those trains not thanks to planning it - but because I wanted to commute a short distance on some random time and day)
    • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @07:27AM (#35102112)

      And the main advantage "can burn all kind of alternative fuels"? Come on, I can do that with my diesel engine already

      I'd like to see what sawdust, wood chips, grass clippings or charcoal would do to your diesel engine. Even liquid fuels will not work if they are high-octane, like ethanol. Diesel engines require liquid fuel at a certain cetane number [wikipedia.org] range.

      A steam engine, OTOH, has basically a single requirement for fuel: it must burn without damaging the boiler.

      • A practical steam engine fuel has at least the requirements:
        - high energy density (you don't want a tender full of grass clippings behind your car)
        - maintenance free fuelling the burning chamber (you don't want to shovel coal)
        - clean, low emission burn

        So basically, you have to process most of your example fuels anyways to be useful. Processing them to anything a conventional diesel engine (or, if you really like ethanol, otto engine) can burn is not a significant loss of efficiency.

        • A garbage-to-oil process would solve a lot of these issues (thermal depolymerisation, perhaps), and then you can use whatever kind of engine you want; though, whether you can do it in a manner that is cost-effective is always the issue with this kind of thing.
          • There are all the parts of this needed in place. There are already companies burning syngas generated from trash to create power. There are companies in the experimental stage converting biogas into methanol and ethanol/ and long chain hydrocarbons.
      • Actually a steam engine has two additional advantages. One is that it is essentially a hybrid for free. If a computer system (either carbon or silicon based) controlled the rate of fuel flow, then the engine could end up not using any energy while idling, which is the main benefit of a hybrid. No expensive batteries to wear out, just some code. The second is that the car is clean in terms of particulate, NOx, and hydrocarbon emissions. AFAIK steam car from 1915 meets 2025 California emissions standards.
      • I wonder about all the interest in the anachronistic steam engine when the contemporary Stirling Engine [wikipedia.org] was ignored
        • Weight, for any sort of real power you need to lug around a huge heat exchanger. Regenerators don't work as well with high volumes, and ideal cycle assumes an isothermic stage, which just doesn't happen when you scale up. (both in temperature differentials, and total heat)
    • Crower has your internal combustion/stream engine....

      Crower six stroke [wikipedia.org]
    • You can't burn ANY fuel in a Diesel engine. If the certane rating of the fuel is too far off you will destroy the engine (try putting gasoline in a diesel and STAND BACK!). In theory you could make a piston engine that would burn any fuel, but you'd need to dynamicly adjust valve, injection, and ignition (for some fuel modes) timing and have a fuel sensor to figure it all out.

    • It isn't efficiency that killed the steam engine, but power/weight. A heat engine such as a sterling can achieve near ideal efficiencies. (It's simply impossible to get any more efficient) It's really quite easy to build a reasonable 30-40 horsepower steam engine that can beat the same power Otto cycle engine any day, It's much easier to maintain, uses less fuel, without too much extra weight or size.

      Some people have designed a 6-stroke engine that combines the Otto cycle, with a 2-stroke steam cycle to u

  • by shish ( 588640 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:32AM (#35101922) Homepage

    external combustion engine

    This can only end well.

    • by sznupi ( 719324 )
      All steam engines are - the working medium is heated by external energy source.
    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      There are all kinds of external combustion engines out there. External combustion means that you have a heat source (a boiler, burner, etc.) that heats up some working fluid (often steam), and the working fluid performs useful work as it expands and cools. Every coal- and oil-fired electrical generation plant is a kind of an external combustor. Nuclear stretches the semantics a bit, because the heat doesn't come from combustion per se. Some natural gas plants are, too, though the preferred architecture
      • by matfud ( 464184 )

        Yes you will destroy a gas engine if you put diesel in it. I know someone who did just that. She must have had a fair bit of petrol in the tank when she refilled the car as it ran for some time before breaking. Very expensive to get the tank drained and the engine fixed. And her face when trying to explain it.

        • by matfud ( 464184 )

          Actually that is the wrong way around. She put gas into a diesel. The same effect though. Little fuel injected tubo diesels are quite highly tuned and though they may run bio diesel they do not like petrol. Must of been that way around as in the UK you cannot put diesel into a gas car.

        • Very expensive to get the tank drained and the engine fixed. And her face when trying to explain it.

          Her face was very expensive to get fixed after trying to explain it?

          What, was it her abusive husband's car?

      • but you would destroy a typical gasoline ICE if you accidentally gave it diesel.

        No, you wouldn't.

        If there were a fair amount of petrol/gasoline mixed with the diesel fuel, the engine would run poorly and would produce a lot of smoke, but it would not be destroyed. Catalytic converters and oxygen sensors could be destroyed if the engine is run that way for more than a few minutes. If the engine ran smoothly, there would be a higher propensity for combustion knock due to the diesel fuel lowering the octane value of the mixture, but mechanical damage is unlikely.

        An engine designed for p

  • by Dexter Herbivore ( 1322345 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:35AM (#35101930) Journal
    Cue car analogies in 3... 2... 1...
  • by jamesl ( 106902 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @06:41AM (#35101944)

    The fatal flaw in portable/mobile steam applications to date has been the need for large radiators (really really large radiators) to cool the steam, converting it back to water to complete the cycle. I see no magic fairy dust in this device that solves that problem.

    The alternative is to carry enough water to run the engine without recycling and eliminate the condensers. And that's a lot of water.

    • Re:Radiators (Score:5, Informative)

      by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @07:52AM (#35102220)

      There were a few condensing steam locomotives [wikipedia.org] built. I don't know why they weren't more common, surely a train has space enough to fit a condenser there and stopping to get water must have been a PITA.

      In the 1960s Bill Lear [wikipedia.org] a very prolific inventor started working on steam cars. By then Lear had already a number of important inventions to his name, among them the car radio (he created the name "Motorola") and the business jet plane (Lear Jet).

      He claimed to have the condenser problem solved by 1969, using an advanced accordion-shaped radiator, but nothing came of his steam car plans. I remember seeing an article on Popular Science mentioning he had a steam turbine bus prototype.

      He also had plans for a steam powered race car to run the Indy 500. This car would use a delta-shaped engine, inspired by the Napier Deltic [wikipedia.org]

      • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
        Because it was much easier to scoop up water from a trough every so often than to condense water (which added to the complexity). A train has a hell of a lot of momentum. Putting out a scoop to refill every so often will not slow it down at all...
        • Re:Radiators (Score:5, Interesting)

          by d3ac0n ( 715594 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @10:21AM (#35103026)

          Except that most steam engines didn't refill by "scoop". They refilled from the TOP via a water tower. They would come to a stop under the tower, the engineer would open the input cap on the hot-well or make-up tank, and a large pipe on a swing-arm would be positioned over the opening. A lever was pulled and gravity would drain the water down into the tank.

          The reason that more steam engines weren't condensing is because air-condensers are notoriously inefficient. You simply couldn't make them large enough to condense the water fast enough to supply a large engine. Eventually you would start getting steam back into the hot-well, and it would cause all sorts of problems. It was simply easier and more efficient to set up water-refilling stations all along the track that were refilled from local sources or via "water trains" that were sent along to the drier outposts.

          • Some steam engines did refill by scoop. There was a long water trough that the engine would go by with its scoop out and pick up what it needed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_locomotive#Condensers_and_water_re-supply [wikipedia.org] There were also engines that could only refill at water towers.
          • Except that most steam engines didn't refill by "scoop". They refilled from the TOP via a water tower.

            Although you are correct that most did not use a "scoop", replenishing water by this method was well known and not uncommon on main lines where there was a competitive desire to reduce transit times. Look up "track pans" for US references.

            For an absolutely smashing discussion of scoops see http://jimquest.com/writ/trains/pans/scoop2.htm [jimquest.com].

            "Scoop" accidents could be deadly; imagine a steamer running full tilt and the scoop drops out or catches on something it shouldn't. Nasty.

      • by jamesl ( 106902 )

        Your link explains why condensing steam locomotives weren't popular.
        "Spent steam is fed through the thick pipe on the locomotive's left side to the condensing tender, where five steam turbine driven fans in the roof blows air down through the radiators on each side of the tender ... The Class 25 was a complex locomotive that required high maintenance ... The equally complex tender also required frequent maintenance."

        Re: Bill Lear -- don't forget the eight track tape.
        His other secret was Learium, a magic flu

      • Condensing steam engines didn't catch on because there was already and infrastructure for refilling water, condensing locomotives were more expensive, and there was also the potential problem of oil in the condensate (which leads to boiler fouling). By the time the benefits started outweighing the costs we had diesel locomotives. Look at Stanley Steamers if you want more information on steam powered cars, at least one of the models was condensing.
    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      If you had read TFA, you would have seen that for this speed run they are skipping to regenerator: it's large, heavy, and bulky, and for a sprint run of a few minutes they don't need it.
      • by jamesl ( 106902 )

        I read TFA and noted that they are not using the regenerator. I also went to the company's website where they say, "From garden equipment and generators to cars, trucks, trains and ships, we see a day when our planet will be powered in a sustainable manner by just One Engine -- the Cyclone Engine."

        Ships are the only application where condensing will not be a problem due to the quantity of cooling water available.

        They also state that one of the things their engine will not require in automotive applications

    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      The 1920s Doble steam car at least approached practicality:

      http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/at-the-garage/steam-cars/1925-doble-series-e-steam-car/ [jaylenosgarage.com]

      (but maybe that 1500 mile range comes with a 30 mph average speed...)

  • For one simple reason. Most people live in climates where the temperature dips below freezing for much of the year. Water freezes.

    • by kent_eh ( 543303 )
      I guess it could use an ethylene glycol / water mix instead of pure water in it's steam loop?

      It wouldn't freeze (at least at normal Canadian winter temperatures) but the different boiling point may cause some (probably not insurmountable) effects.
      • by eyegor ( 148503 )

        I'd be concerned about "gumming up the works" with the glycol. Try taking a few drops of coolant from your car sometime and rub it between your fingers for a while. They'll eventually be coated with the glycol residue and will be pretty sticky. Water steam under pressure is VERY hot and I'd be concerned that the glycol would gum everything up that same residue.

        Bringing a steam turbine online would be a pretty slow process and not well suited for quick trips to the store.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      All you have illustrated an engineering problem. An easily solvable one at that. Not that I think steam engines will ever be mainstream, but your reasoning is simple minded.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The reason that the internal combustion engine won out over external combustion engines in the last 50 years is its ability to instantly deliver the power on demand. But now with fuel prices going north we are going to need to start looking at efficiency of the engines we use and that's where external combustion engines win out. We are going to probably going to see a internal combustion engine that runs until the other engine gets up to speed. It will most likely be a Stirling engine with its flywheel as a

    • In comparison to a gasoline piston engine, gas turbines are more efficient and smaller. In the 60s, Chrysler tried making cars with gas turbines, but went the "direct drive" route (which isn't fitting for the "stop and go" type of city driving); it didn't work out too well. Now that we have computer controllers and electric-drive cars, a (truly) small gas-turbine could be connected to a generator to charge batteries and/or drive electric motors of modern cars. This type of engine is arguably more fitting fo
  • Century of progress (Score:3, Interesting)

    by boustrophedon ( 139901 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @08:40AM (#35102422)

    The 2009 records by Inspiration [gizmag.com] were the first beat the 1906 record of 127 mph (204 km/hr) set by Fred Marriott driving a modified Stanley Steamer [stanleysteamers.com].

    • The 2009 records by Inspiration [gizmag.com] were the first beat the 1906 record of 127 mph (204 km/hr)

      I called what I called a 'Sputnik moment' for US! We must defeat the brits and take back the honor of being the greatest nation! We will fix our edukation!!!

  • by Cytotoxic ( 245301 ) on Friday February 04, 2011 @09:45AM (#35102782)

    From the links at the bottom of TFA, the British team already has a body on their 200mph steam car. Looks a lot cooler too. [gizmag.com]

    • by Plekto ( 1018050 )

      And that's how you know that the one in the article is fake. I can spot half a dozen problems from the picture alone, from the heavy gauge steel frame to the geometry and (well, the list is very long). It looks like something cobbled together in a garage by people who don't know how to do proper design.(at least use aluminum tubing to keep the weight down, fools) The British team, though, it looks like a proper purpose-built vehicle.

      http://www.steamcar.co.uk/ [steamcar.co.uk]
      Interesting reading.

      Note - I do wish someone h

  • A simple nuclear reactor system similar to what is used in submarine could easily beat the record.

  • The 2009 effort was embarrassing. They built a low-slung vehicle powered by a steam turbine, designed to travel only in a straight line, and took it to the Bonneville Salt Flats. And they went 148mph.

    That's pathetic. A sizable number of street-legal cars and motorcycles can do that. All Indy, F1, and NASCAR cars can do far better. The current land speed record for a wheel-driven vehicle is 416mph. (Jet cars running on wheels have exceeded Mach 1, but those are really aircraft flying at a very low altitud

  • My ancestor Dr JW Carhart is often credited with building and using the first automobile in Wisconsin in 1871. He actually used his 1,100 pound horseless buggy as a circuit-riding Methodist minister [wordpress.com] (he was also a medical doctor and physics professor). Some claim he won a $10,000 priize in the first organized steam powered race in 1878. His two cylindered coal fired "Car" covered 201 miles in a loop, starting and returning to Green Bay in 33 hours 27 minutes: exactly 6 smoking miles per hour.
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