Advanced steam technology

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Sentinel-Cammell steam railcar

Advanced steam technology (sometimes known as modern steam) reflects an approach to the technical development of the steam engine intended for a wider variety of applications than has recently been the case. Particular attention has been given to endemic problems that led to the demise of steam power in small- to medium-scale commercial applications: excessive pollution, maintenance costs, labour-intensive operation, low power/weight ratio, and low overall thermal efficiency; where steam power has generally now been superseded by the internal combustion engine or by electrical power drawn from an electrical grid. The only steam installations that are in widespread use are the highly efficient thermal power plants used for generating electricity on a large scale. In contrast, the proposed steam engines may be for stationary, road, rail or marine use.

Improving steam traction[edit]

Although most references to "Modern Steam" apply to developments since the 1970s, certain aspects of advanced steam technology can be discerned throughout the 20th century, notably automatic boiler control along with rapid startup.

Abner Doble[edit]

In 1922 Abner Doble developed an electro-mechanical system that reacted simultaneously to steam temperature and pressure, starting and stopping the feed pumps whilst igniting and cutting out the burner according to boiler pressure.[1] The contraflow monotube boiler had a working pressure of 750 psi (5.17 MPa) to 1,200 psi (8.27 MPa) but contained so little water in circulation as to present no risk of explosion. This type of boiler was continuously developed in the US, Britain and Germany throughout the 1930s and into the 1950s for use in cars, buses, trucks, railcars, shunting locomotives (US; switchers), a speedboat and in 1933, a converted Travel Air 2000 biplane.[2][3]


In the UK, Sentinel Waggon Works developed a vertical water-tube boiler running at 275 psi (1.90 MPa) which was used in road vehicles, shunting locomotives and railcars. Steam could be raised much more quickly than with a conventional locomotive boiler.

Holcroft and Anderson[edit]

Trials of the Anderson condensing system on the Southern Railway (Great Britain) took place between 1930 and 1935. Condensing apparatus has not been widely used on steam locomotives, because of the additional complexity and weight, but it offers four potential advantages:

  • Improved thermal efficiency
  • Reduced water consumption
  • Reduced boiler maintenance for limescale removal
  • Reduced noise

The Anderson condensing system uses a process known as mechanical vapor recompression. It was devised by a Glasgow marine engineer, Harry Percival Harvey Anderson.[4] The theory was that, by removing around 600 of the 970 British thermal units present in each pound of steam (1400 of the 2260 kilojoules in each kilogram), it would be possible to return the exhaust steam to the boiler by a pump which would consume only 1-2% of the engine's power output. Between 1925 and 1927 Anderson, and another Glasgow engineer John McCullum (some sources give McCallum), conducted experiments on a stationary steam plant with encouraging results. A company, Steam Heat Conservation (SHC), was formed and a demonstration of Anderson's system was arranged at Surbiton Electricity Generating Station.

SHC was interested in applying the system to a railway locomotive and contacted Richard Maunsell of the Southern Railway. Maunsell requested that a controlled test be carried out at Surbiton and this was done about 1929. Maunsell's technical assistant, Harold Holcroft, was present and a fuel saving of 29% was recorded, compared to conventional atmospheric working. The Southern Railway converted SECR N class locomotive number A816 (later 1816 and 31816) to the Anderson system in 1930. The locomotive underwent trials and initial results were encouraging. After an uphill trial from Eastleigh to Litchfield Summit, Holcroft is reported as saying:

"In the ordinary way this would have created much noise and clouds of steam, but with the condensing set in action it was all absorbed with the ease with which snow would melt in a furnace! The engine was as silent as an electric locomotive and the only faint noises were due to slight pounding of the rods and a small blow at a piston gland. This had to be experienced to be believed; but for the regulator being wide open and the reverser well over, one would have imagined that the second engine (an LSWR T14 class that had been provided as a back-up) was propelling the first".[5]

The trials continued until 1934 but various problems arose and the project went no further. The locomotive was converted back to standard form in 1935.[6]

Andre Chapelon[edit]

The work of French mechanical engineer Andre Chapelon in applying scientific analysis and a strive for thermal efficiency was an early example of advanced steam technology.[7][8] Chapelon's protégé Livio Dante Porta continued Chapelon's work.[7]

Livio Dante Porta[edit]

Postwar in the late 1940s and 1950s some designers worked on modernising steam locomotives. The Argentinian engineer Livio Dante Porta in the development of Stephensonian railway locomotives incorporating advanced steam technology was a precursor of the 'Modern Steam' movement from 1948.[9]:3–6 Where possible, Porta much preferred to design new locomotives, but more often in practice he was forced to radically update old ones to incorporate the new technology.

Bulleid and Riddles[edit]

In Britain the SR Leader class of c. 1949 by Oliver Bulleid and the British Rail ‘Standard’ class steam locomotives of the 1950s by Robert Riddles, particularly the BR Standard Class 9F, were used to trial new steam locomotive design features, including the Franco-Crosti boiler. On moving to Ireland, Bulleid also designed CIÉ No. CC1 which had many novel features.

Achieving the ends[edit]

The Sir Biscoe Tritton Lecture, given by Roger Waller, of the DLM company [10] to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in 2003[11] gives an idea of how problems in steam power are being addressed. Waller refers mainly to some rack and pinion mountain railway locomotives that were newly built from 1992-98. They were developed for three companies in Switzerland and Austria, and continued to work on two of these lines as of 2008. The new steam locomotives burn the same grade of light oil as their diesel counterparts, and all demonstrate the same advantages of ready availability and reduced labour cost; at the same time they have been shown to greatly reduce air and ground pollution. Their economic superiority has meant that they have largely replaced the diesel locomotives and railcars previously operating the line; additionally, steam locomotives are a tourist attraction.

A parallel line of development was the return to steam power of the old Lake Geneva paddle steamer Montreux that had been refitted with a diesel-electric engine in the 1960s.[12] Economic aims similar to those achieved with the rack locomotives were pursued through automatic control of the light-oil-fired boiler and remote control of the engine from the bridge, enabling the steamship to be operated by a crew of the same size as a motor ship.


All this can be summed up as follows on the basis of the DLM company prospectus:[13]

Modern Steam stands for a new economic and ecologic steam technology, providing the following advantages:

  • One-person operation for steam locomotives
  • Automatic boiler and remote-controlled steam engine for ships
  • Light-oil firing with clean combustion
  • Low cost of ownership providing good return on investment
  • High thermal efficiency of engine and boiler
  • High-level insulation of boiler, steam engine and piping
  • Modular concept and exchangeable parts
  • Up-to-date bearing technology reducing maintenance and protecting the environment

- To which may be added:

  • Ready availability for use
  • Can also be used as part of a cogeneration system with a petrol, diesel or gas turbine engine
  • Lends itself well to combined heat and power (CHP) operation
  • Can exploit geothermal sources of steam

Carbon neutrality[edit]

A power unit based on advanced steam technology burning fossil fuel will inevitably emit carbon dioxide, a long-lasting greenhouse gas. However, significant reductions, compared to other combustion technologies, of other pollutants such as CO and NOx are achievable by steam technology, which does not involve explosive combustion,[14] without the need for add-ons such as filters etc. or special preparation of fuel.

If renewable fuel such as wood or other biofuel is used then the system could be carbon neutral. The use of biofuel remains controversial; however, liquid biofuels are easier to manufacture for steam plant than for diesels as they do not demand the stringent fuel standards required to protect diesel injectors.

It has been proposed [15] that, given sufficient solar energy, silicon compounds — or even regular biomass processed into solid fuel through torrefaction — might be refined for use as a coal replacement for this type of engine.

Advantages of advanced steam technology[edit]

In principle, combustion and power delivery of steam plant can be considered as separate stages. While high overall thermal efficiency may be difficult to achieve, largely due to the extra stage of generating a working fluid between combustion and power delivery attributable mainly to leakages and heat losses,[9]:54–61 the separation of the processes allows specific problems to be addressed at each stage without revising the whole system every time. For instance, the boiler or steam generator can be adapted to use any heat source, whether obtained from solid, liquid or gaseous fuel, and can use waste heat. Whatever the choice, it will have no direct effect on the design of the engine unit, as that only ever has to deal with steam.

Early twenty-first century[edit]

Small-scale stationary plant[edit]

This project mainly includes combined electrical generation and heating systems for private homes and small villages burning wood or bamboo chips. This is intended to replace 2-stroke donkey engines and small diesel power plants. Drastic reduction in noise level is one immediate benefit of a steam-powered small plant. Ted Pritchard, of Melbourne, Australia, was intensively developing this type of unit from 2002 until his death in 2007. The company Pritchard Power (now Uniflow Power) [16] stated in 2010 that they continue to develop the stationary S5000, and that a prototype had been built and was being tested, and designs were being refined for market ready products.[17]

Until 2006 a German company called Enginion was actively developing a Steamcell, a micro CHP unit about the size of a PC tower for domestic use. It seems that by 2008 it had merged with Berlin company AMOVIS.[18][19]

Since 2012, a French company, EXOES, is selling to industrial firms a Rankine Cycle, patented, engine, which is designed to work with many fuels such as concentrated solar power, biomass, or fossil. The system, called "SHAPE" for Sustainable Heat And Power Engine, converts the heat into electricity. The SHAPE engine is suitable for embedded, and stationary, applications. A SHAPE engine has been integrated into a biomass boiler, and into a Concentrated solar power system. The company is planning to work with automobile manufactures, long-haul truck manufactures, and railway corporations.[20]

A similar unit is marketed by Powertherm,[21] a subsidiary of Spilling (see below).

A company in India [22] manufactures steam powered generators in a range of sizes from 4 hp to 50 hp. They also offer a number of different mills that can be powered by their engines.

In matter of technology, notice that the Quasiturbine is a uniflow rotary steam engine where steam intakes in hot areas, while exhausting in cold areas.

Small ship auxiliaries and large portable generators[edit]

Once again quiet operation is the immediate benefit sought in this field, a potential recognised by Ted Pritchard, but nothing of note has yet appeared.

Small fixed stationary plant[edit]

The Spilling company produces a variety of small fixed stationary plant adapted to biomass combustion or power derived from waste heat or pressure recovery.[23][24]

The Finnish company Steammotor Finland has developed a small rotary steam engine that runs with 800 kW steam generator. The engines are planned to produce electricity in wood chip fired power plants. According to the company, the steam engine named Quadrum generates 27% efficiency and runs with 180 °C steam at 8 bar pressure, while a corresponding steam turbine produces just 15% efficiency, requires steam temperature of 240 °C and pressure of 40 bar. The high efficiency comes from a patented crank mechanism, that gives a smooth, pulseless torque. The company believes that by further developing the construction there is potential to reach as high efficiency as 30–35 %.[25]

Automotive uses[edit]

During the first 1970s oil crisis, a number of investigations into steam technology were initiated by large automobile corporations although as the crisis died down, impetus was soon lost.

Australian engineer Ted Pritchard's[26] main field of research from the late 1950s until the 1970s was the building of several efficient steam power units working on the uniflow system adapted to a small truck and two cars. One of the cars was achieving the lowest emissions figures of that time.

IAV, a Berlin-based R&D company that later developed the Steamcell, during the 1990s was working on the single-cylinder ZEE (Zero Emissions Engine), followed by the compact 3-cylinder EZEE (Equal-to-Zero-Emissions-Engine)[27] designed to fit in the engine compartment of a Škoda Fabia small family saloon. All these engines made heavy use of flameless ceramic heat cells both for the steam generator and at strategic boost points where steam was injected into the cylinder(s).

Cyclone Power Technologies of Pompano Beach, Florida patented the Cyclone Mark V Engine, a compact, six cylinder radial steam engine with integrated steam generator and condenser. The engine is predicted to produce 100 hp at 3600 rpm,[28] although as of January 2, 2015, Cyclone Power Technologies has yet to deliver a working engine to a customer or provide a public demonstration of their engine working.[29] The engine has been promoted for use in racing cars to set a land speed record for steam powered vehicles[30][31] and an all-fuel engine for powering forklift trucks.[32]

Rail use[edit]

  • No. 52 8055,[33] a rebuild of an existing locomotive (East Germany, 1960).
  • The 5AT project,[34] a proposal for an entirely new locomotive (Britain, 2000s).
  • The ACE 3000 project,[35] proposed by locomotive enthusiast Ross Rowland during the 1970s oil crisis. The locomotive would look like a diesel, and was designed to compete with current diesel locomotives by using coal, much cheaper than oil at the time. The ACE 3000 would feature many new technologies, such as automatic firing and water-level control. The locomotive would be able to be connected to a diesel unit and run in unison with it, so that it would not be necessary to hook up two identical locomotives. The ACE 3000 was one of the most publicised attempts at modern steam, but the project ultimately failed due to lack of funds.
  • The CSR Project 130,[36] intends to develop a modern steam locomotive (based on an existing ATSF 3460 class locomotive) capable of higher-speed passenger transport at more than 100 mph, and tested up to 130 mph (hence the name Project 130). It is proposed to be carbon-neutral, as it will run on torrefied biomass as solid fuel (unlike all other contemporary designs, which mandate liquid fuel). The development is a joint effort between University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (IonE) and Sustainable Rail International, a non-profit employing railway experts and steam engineers established for the purpose.

Novel versus conventional layout[edit]

Both 52 8055 and the proposed 5AT are of conventional layout, with the cab at the back, while the ACE 3000 had the cab located at the front. Other approaches are possible, especially with liquid fuel firing. For example:

  • Cab forward type. This is a well-tried design with the potential for a large power output and would provide the driver good visibility. Being single-ended it would have to be turned on a turntable, or a triangular junction. Example: Southern Pacific 4294.
  • Garratt type. Another well-tried design with large power potential. Example: South Australian Railways 400 class. A future design could include shorter water tanks, and a cab at each end, to give the driver a good view in either direction.
Sentinel-Cammell locomotive
  • A design mounted on power bogies with compact water-tube boiler similar to Sentinel designs of the 1930s. Example: Sentinel-Cammell locomotive (right).

Fireless locomotives[edit]

Another proposal for advanced steam technology is to revive the fireless locomotive, which runs on stored steam independently pre-generated. An example is the Solar Steam Train project [37] in Sacramento, California.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Walton J.N. (1965-74) Doble Steam Cars, Buses, Lorries, and Railcars. Light Steam Power Isle of Man, UK. pp. 27; 79; 62; 181;184; 187;120; 149.
  2. ^ "World's First Steam Driven Airplane" Popular Science, July 1933, detailed article with drawings
  3. ^ George & William Besler (April 29, 2011). The Besler Steam Plane (YouTube). Bomberguy.
  4. ^ "Brief Biographies of Mechanical Engineers". Retrieved 2012-02-13.
  5. ^ Robertson, Kevin, Leader and Southern Experimental Steam, Alan Sutton Publishing 1990, pp 22-33, ISBN 0-86299-743-7
  6. ^ Douglas Self (2008-04-01). "The Holcroft-Anderson Recompression Locomotive". Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  7. ^ a b "André Chapelon 1892 - 1978 | 5AT Advanced Steam Locomotive Project". Archived from the original on 2012-12-25. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  8. ^ "The Ultimate Steam Page".
  9. ^ a b Porta, L.D. Advanced steam locomotive development, three technical papers. Camden Miniature Steam Services, Somerset UK, 2006. ISBN 978-0-9547131-5-7
  10. ^ "Willkommen bei DLM". Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  11. ^ "Internet Archive Wayback Machine" (PDF). 2007-10-22. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-10-22. Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  12. ^ "Internet Archive Wayback Machine" (PDF). 2007-10-15. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-10-15. Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  13. ^ "DLM AG". 2008-04-09. Archived from the original on 2008-04-09. Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  14. ^ "Why a steam engine". Archived from the original on 28 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-18.
  15. ^ Prof. W. Earl Bardsley, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, 3240, New Zealand (2008). "The Sustainable Global Energy Economy: Hydrogen or Silicon?". Natural Resources Research. Springer Link. 17 (4): 197–204. doi:10.1007/s11053-008-9077-6. hdl:10289/884.
  16. ^ "Uniflow Power Ltd - Renewable Energy and Resource Efficiency". Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  17. ^ "Uniflow Technology: Technology page". Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  18. ^ Amovis: Heat Recovery Systems / SteamCell
  19. ^ "Amovis GmbH - Automotive Visions". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved 2012-04-30.
  20. ^ "Exoes". kent695. Retrieved 2012-05-18.[permanent dead link]
  21. ^ "PowerTherm". Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  22. ^ "TinyTech". Archived from the original on 2016-05-25. Retrieved 2016-06-10.
  23. ^ "Spilling - Company". Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  24. ^ "Spilling Oil Free Steam Engine". Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  25. ^ Tervola, Janne (2015-02-06). "Savolaiskeksintö tehostaa höyrymoottoria" [A Savonian invention makes steam motor more efficient]. Tekniikka & Talous. Helsinki, Finland: Talentum Media Oy. 4: 10. ISSN 0785-997X.
  26. ^ "Our History". Archived from the original on March 9, 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  27. ^ [1] Archived October 11, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ Fact sheet "Cyclone Engine Mark V Specifications". Retrieved from "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-22. Retrieved 2015-01-14.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  29. ^ Page 19 in the Quarterly Report for the quarterly period ended September 30, 2014, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Retrieved from
  30. ^ Press Release "Cyclone Power Technologies to Build Engine For Steam Car Land Speed Record Attempt". Retrieved from "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-11-16. Retrieved 2015-01-14.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  31. ^ Team Steam USA car webpage. Retrieved from
  32. ^ Press release: "Cyclone Power Technologies Signs Letter of Intent with Leading Global Lift Equipment Manufacturer, Combilift". Retrieved from
  33. ^ "DLM's 52-8055". Archived from the original on June 6, 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  34. ^ "5AT Advanced Steam Locomotive Project". Archived from the original on 2012-08-15. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  35. ^ "The Ultimate Steam Page". Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  36. ^ "Coalition for Sustainable Rail".
  37. ^ "Solar Steam Train project announcement". 2009-07-09. Retrieved 2012-02-12.