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February 12, 2008


Chris Clark

urm, don't stem cars burn coal?


"Might we now be driving sophisticated steam cars, and not worrying about climate change or "energy security"? "

What, because the water to make the steam is going to be heated by good intentions as opposed to a fossil based fuel? Don't think so.

Last time I looked - a long time ago - steam engines utilised approximately 9% of the energy used by them. Petrol engines came out at 21%. Would be happy to be corrected on those figures.


Recusant - what was the figure for petrol engines in 1900 though? The question is not how do present steam engines perform but how might they have performed given 100 years of development.

Also neglected was the Stirling Engine


David Gillies

I think Stirling engines are the wave of the future, and have been for 190 years.


"it was a petrol car maker who invented the mass production that allowed costs to fall": unless you think it was Brunel's father who invented mass production.


Trains and ships were almost all steam powered in 1900. They are not any more, in spite of the enormous investment in them when the internal combustion engine was invented.

That suggests to me that internal combustion has some real non-path dependent advantages.


Trains, ships, etc with steam engines require a stoker. The working conditions were also a bit warm and dangerous.


Some people still believe in steam powered cars.


This guy has been trying to sell his technology for years in Australia.


I believe most ships are now diesel, but most power stations are steam. Which to me hints that steam might be more efficient, if weight and size is no object. Which is of course not the case in a car.

(At least the coal-burning power stations. I've heard of oil-burning ones with a gas-turbine followed by steam running on the waste heat, and similar exotics, to wring a little more efficiency out of it.)

Jen, writer MembershipMillionaire.com

Interesting. I never thought of it that way but now that you mention it, I guess we did skip a few things. Perhaps if we hadn't been so hungry for speed and development, we would have taken more time to help the steam car evolve. The shortest route isn't always the best route. Is it too late to have that sort of mindset?


Could all this be a consequence of Churchill's decision around 1911 to convert British Navy to oil? (See 'The Prize' by Daniel Yergin.


Nuclear powered ships also run on steam - the nuclear fuel heats the water to run steam turbine engines. BMW is currently experimenting with a steam/petrol hybrid in which waste heat is used to produce steam for additional power by driving pistons in two additional cylinders. So perhaps the technology is not entirely dead. Similarly the air car soon to be produced by Tata Motors (India) is basically a steam engine run on compressed air.

a very public sociologist

Sorry to lower the tone, but doesn't the diagram of a Sterling Engine on the Wikipedia page linked to above look, well, a smidgen phallic?


Wonderful - I'm buying one.

Matt Munro

You still have to burn something to make the steam though, so how would it improve the energy security situation ? Also water is heavy and you have to carry a lot with you.
Theoretically you could power a car using a nuclear steam raising plant, with radiocative material the size of a pinhead. The weight of containment chambers is the biggest obstacle


How about this then?



Stop pissing about - just freeze all the rivers so we can skate to work.


It's interesting



Steam cars are a brilliant example of path dependence.

Ford and GM's predecessors outmanoeuvred the Stanley brothers (down to false ad campaigns suggesting that Stanley Steamers exploded: they did not do so more than did petrol-engined internal combustion engine cars, unlike an ICE, a steamer can run on just about any hydrocarbon (with a cleaner burn, due to the regulation of burn temperature). An outbreak of hoof and mouth disease (leading to a covering of all the cattle and horse troughs that Steamers used to rewater) put paid to the cars.

Because of the lower revolutions per minute, the gearing on a steam car is much less complex and inefficient: Dobie's have run 250,000 miles with only ordinary maintenance.

Given the cost of switching a whole industry to steam cars, and the necessary network effects (spare parts, repair, fuelling etc.) and the absence of economies of scale/ R&D costs, I don't see it ever happening.

*however* it occurs to me a steam-electric hybrid might well do some very interesting things. You could run the engine at a constant speed, without gearing, which would do wonders for efficiency.

It feels a bit like a Walter John Williams/ William Gibson novel, or Harry Turtledove, the one where George Washington was defeated, and the British Empire still runs North America, with the Mounties driving steam cars.

Argentinian fellow called Poras did a huge amount of work with the Cubans on steam engined trains powered by biomass (Cuba lost all its oil supplies when the Soviet Union collapsed). Unfortunately, the project was cancelled (the economy began to recover) before it could be consummated.

Cheap Car Parts

the diagram of Sterling Engine that's in the Wikipedia is not the exact thing my friend...

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Now a days every one are looking or alternative car cause the gas are very expensive, in the market are differen propositions like the gas LP and the electric cars which is a good idea .

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