by Mike Brown
Tales of high-mileage carburetors suppressed by the automotive industry and "free energy" devices suppressed by the power companies abound. There is even a story that has been surfacing occasionally concerning a "powder" that converts ordinary tap water into motor fuel.
The irony is that free energy has been ours for the taking for over a hundred years from a device that was invented over 200 years ago: the simple steam engine.
Admittedly, the internal combustion engine (a steam engine uses external combustion) is more efficient. An automobile engine will work at about 25-28% efficiency. A steam engine will work at only 5-8% efficiency.
On that basis it would appear that the steam engine is only another archaic, outmoded way to produce power, on par with the mule, the windmill, and the water wheel.
At least, it appears that way. There are apparently people in position of influence who know better. A trip to the local public or college library may disabuse you of the notion that steam power is "no competition" to our modern engines.
First, you will find that over 90% of the power (primarily for electricity) in the United States is produced by steam, primarily from steam turbines.
Second, you will be able to find plenty of books in a library on solar power, wind power, water power, petroleum power, and the like. When you get to the "how-to" section on piston steam engines, you will find an area that looks like it has been gone through by a vacuum cleaner designed to suck out books on that subject.
Third, a little basis arithmetic will show that the basic piston steam engine has not -- and cannot be -- surpassed for efficiency even to this day.
A steam engine consists of the engine itself, and a furnace with a boiler. The furnace provides the heat source to heat up the water in the boiler. When the water in the boiler turns to steam it expands and in turn drives the piston--or pistons--of the steam engine.
Your basic boilers are generally firetube, water tube, and monotube boilers. Fuel source can be either liquid or solid, such as used crankcase oil (liquid) or ground-up corncobs (solid). Natural gas can also be used. As you can readily see, the cost of the fuel, even though you will need a lot more of it, is much cheaper.For example, 120 pounds of gasoline (20 gallons) will cost you slightly over $20.00. 1,000 pounds of coal will cost about the same. As long ago as 1946 steam locomotives had reached such a level of efficiency that one ton (including the weight of the train itself) could be moved one mile on the tracks with a teacup full of water and 2 ounces of coal.
This may seem like an exaggeration. However, bear in mind that the energy required to lift 33,000 pounds one foot in one minute (the proper way to measure one horsepower) is nowhere near the energy required to maintain the speed of an object in motion rolling along a relatively friction-free surface (railroad tracks).
For example, a 5,000 pound vehicle on steel railroad tracks will travel approximately five (5) times as far on a gallon of fuel as the same vehicle with rubber tires on the interstate will.
Ground-up corncobs would obviously be much cheaper. A farmer spending $25,000 a year for fuel in his tractors could cut that cost to zero.
The other item that is frequently overlooked is that, while an internal combustion engine may be 28% efficient, the energy required to produce the fuel renders the gasoline engine less efficient than the steam engine.
To use an analogy, we get media hype about the "non-polluting electric car." No one pays any attention to the coal-fired power plant belching dust into the air to create that electricity.
A steam engine can run on the products at hand -- sawdust, wood, corncobs, etc. No one counts the cost and energy consumption of bringing crude oil out of the ground, refining it, shipping it to terminals and service stations, and all the rest.
It gets better. As we have just shown you, the net cost of operating a steam engine is lower than anything else on the planet that requires fuel. You can run an automobile on farmer's alcohol. You can run a diesel on vegetable oil. Both examples are still more costly and labor intensive (to produce the fuel) than steam.
You may never have to replace the steam engine itself. Steam engines do not form carbon (a major wear factor) and turn fairly slowly. Steam engines have other advantages that, in regards to the wear factor, outclass gasoline engines. Steam engines normally have much larger bearing surfaces against the crankshaft. Steam engines have no "side-loading" as gas engines do and, on a "double-acting" steam engine (steam pressure is alternately exerted against each side of the piston) there is a "cushion" effect that protects the engine still further. One steam engine in England ran 24 hours a day from 1800 to 1950.
See: Levant Beam Engine: A steam engine built in 1840, its claim to fame being that it is the oldest Cornish mine engine which also has remained in situ, and is to this day operational
The Steam Car Project
Alternative Energy for the 21st Century
Index to Mike Brown's Alternative Energy
This page was updated on 2 March 2013