Steam Power Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 17 at noon Pacific for the Steam Power Hack Chat with Quinn Dunki!

The steam power age may be behind us now, but that doesn’t mean that the engineering that went into steam engines isn’t worth exploring. In a lot of ways, the steam age is what made modern engineering what we know it as today. Where wind- and water-powered devices could often work well enough with a couple of inches of tolerance, steam engines required parts measured to the hundredth or even thousandth of an inch. Optimizing steam engines required a deep understanding of thermodynamics, too, which unveiled more about the way the universe works than had ever been realized before. And the need for parts strong enough to withstand steam pressure and the lubricants needed to keep the wheels turning paved the way for advances in materials science and chemical engineering that are still paying dividends today.

Celebrating the achievements of steam power may seem anachronistic, but in light of everything steam has done for us, it makes a lot of sense. And that’s not to mention the cool aesthetics of steam engines, with beefy castings and brass parts sliding back and forth, complicated linkages doing who-knows-what to make the engine work on nothing more than a little bit of boiling water. There’s the attraction of danger, too; improperly built boilers can be a disaster, so building one that’s safe to use can be quite a challenge.

join-hack-chatAll this and more is what the steam hobby is all about, an area that Quinn Dunki has been exploring for a while now. Over on her YouTube channel, Quinn has documented the process of turning raw metal into a working steam engine and boiler, and is currently working on a bigger, more powerful engine. We’ve invited her on the Hack Chat to talk about all things steam — where to get started in the hobby, what kinds of things you can learn by building your own steam engines, and how her current builds are going. If you’ve ever wanted to explore steam power, here’s your chance to ask a real steam aficionado.

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 17 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

35 thoughts on “Steam Power Hack Chat

    1. Seriously though, you can get a steam service in some places like New York City. For heat or clothes pressing, not sure about running an engine on it. A holdover from a more civilized age. . .

  1. How are we past the steam age? Probably 90% of the electricity generated by fossil-fuels and all the electricity from nuclear plants comes to us via a trip through a boiler and steam turbine.

      1. Not really, as that countertop can be anything being granite is entirely a choice of the owner/user, where power generation is ‘required’ and there are no universally better choices than a steam turbine – its entirely for functional reasons the correct choice still.

        1. That argument goes both ways. The building foundation is still stone (in Europe, the building as a whole generally, too, in the US, lighter wood-framing style buildings are common as well), because there’s no better choice for a building foundation. So, stone age.

          1. Not really as there are a great many excellent choices for building material, and its entirely what is most appealing/convenient/cheap that defines the choice you make – you could choose to build entirely in OAK, steel reinforced concrete, or even build entirely in obsidian if you like! It changes how the build looks etc, but they are all valid materials.

            Where you want to generate grid scale electricity right now the ONLY really universal reliable choices contain Steam Turbines… We look like we might just be on the verge of providing some other valid choices, but none of those technologies are quite ready for mass deployment yet. SO IMPORTANTLY at this time there isn’t any other choice!

            p.s most foundations are generally concrete or brick and cement not natural stone…

  2. Ever since electric and hybrid cars started becoming mainstream, I’ve wondered why steam cars aren’t being brought back. An electric drivetrain would be perfect for adding the “start up and go” convenience of an IC car, while the onboard computer fires up and gets the boiler working for the long haul, then the batteries get topped up by a little dynamo, and it’s ready for another cold start.
    The icing on the cake would be if the cycle could be closed so the working fluid (not necessarily water) gets recycled, requiring only occasional topping up, like a radiator.

    1. Steam is not gonna be the solution due to energy loss in transfer. You can use electric to heat water for a steam boiler to power the car but that is just another energy conversion with a loss. More efficient to send the electric to an electric motor. Also, the steam engine is expending energy even when the car is standing still where an electric motor does not. If you heat the steam with something other than electric then you are just into another energy source, coal, oil, hydrogen, natural gas, etc. Not sure it would be more efficient to use combustion to heat steam vs direct internal combustion. I would think the steam transfer would have more heat loss.

      You can certainly do closed cycle steam, most home heating with steam is closed cycle with only occasional make up water to compensate for system losses. The only limitation for a vehicle is the added equipment for closed loop steam. You have to re-introduce the low pressure steam being exhausted back into the high pressure steam side with an injector pump or something like that. Might not be worth the weight penalty in a mobile steam system and they really did not do it with steam locomotive for some reason.

      1. Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear… I meant electric motors to move the car while the gasoline (or any other flammable substance) powered boiler was heating up. The efficiency of a steam powered car is in the direct connection between the cylinder(s) and the wheels, and in the lack of a (fuel consuming) idle (given a properly insulated boiler, not unlike a home water heater).
        If using water, an injector pump would be required anyway, unless you use an (unnecessarily dangerous) fire-tube boiler, which you also allow to cool completely before refilling, which would be the worst system to use. But there’s no real reason to use water, when some other working fluid would work just as well or better. A/C and refrigeration systems run closed-loop all the time, and they’re just steam (heat) engines in reverse.

        1. Because if your steam cylinders have a direct connection to the wheels, then your efficiency is determined by whatever approximation of a Carnot cycle that cylinder uses – which is something like 9-18%.

          You can instead use the fuel to run an optimised electrical generator and significantly beat the steam efficiency. The electrical losses after that point are fairly small.

    2. There was a steam car that was closed cycle. Check out the Doble Steam Car. Another cool part was it had no transmission or clutch, because it was such a torque monster. I think Jay Leno did an episode on the Doble Model E.

    3. One of the things most people don’t think about wrt steam cars was that the most popular implementations had tanks for water (for the not 100% condensing steam exhaust) and gasoline/kerosine (for heating the water to boiling) and oil (for lubricating the steam cylinders) and all three had to be filled every 100 miles or so. Steam cars used slightly more gasoline per mile than early gasoline cars. Gasoline engines have gotten WAY better in efficiency, and much as I like steam engines, they really haven’t improved a lot since 1920. There are proposals for steam engines that are pretty impressive, like Dan Gelbart’s uniflow steam engine with electromechanical variable valve timing, but right now they’re small running demonstration units.

  3. Cool!
    Just a word of caution though: Steam power over a certain pressure requires licensing and training.
    I only know this as our old tractor club has several steam tractors, including a completely home built one from the 1980s that cannot be run, ever, because it is not licensed and might not even pass inspection anyway.
    Most small hobby steam will likely be safe though.

    1. Not one, most modern cars exposed to EMP will require a power off and restart but will run fine. It’s been tested.

      Depends on the strength of the EMP and distance.

      They snuck shielding requirements into the law under radio interference laws in the 1980s (USA).

      Install those metal covers on your PC expansion slots and it’s much better hardened. Don’t use plexiglass window ‘gamer cases’.

      On the other hand, the transformers at the ends of long transmission lines are likely slag.

  4. Materials phase transfer in general is very interesting in regards to energy utility, not only water.

    Didn’t the Soviet Union use central boilers for transferring heat like I think Iceland as well, though I recall Iceland’s being more geothermal designs for the heating?

    Where there is geothermal… scary how systems haven’t been implemented more… I think at least.

    Sometimes get’s me wondering about pumping all the hydrocarbons out of the ground and the adverse impact effect on releasing all that energy on the surface of the planet. Also, the shielding that those layers of hydrocarbons might have like dampening or thermal mass effects. Finally, the release of all the other toxic effusia, vapor, etc. into the environment.

    At least the direct thermal transfer isn’t so dangerous.

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