In 1906, Fred Marriot climbed into his car and hit the accelerator. The steam powered vehicle raced at 127 miles per hour, setting the all-time land speed record and replacing the electric car as the king of speed. Four years later, a Mercedes Benz, running on an internal combustion engine, hit 130mph. By 1920, steam powered cars were obsolete relics, reminders of the days before gasoline was the be all and end all of automobile power.
With mounting concerns over the polluting and limited qualities of fossil fuels and the current surge of electric, natural gas and hybrid cars, it seems that gasoline’s reign is coming to an end. But can steam make a comeback? It has its fair share of upsides: it runs on water, and the only energy required is what is needed to heat the water to its boiling point.
In the aftermath of the 1973 global oil crisis, Saab took a crack at building a steam engine, though it soon shelved the project. But there are still those who are confident enough in steam as a modern form of transportation that they built, and raced, a steam powered car: the British Steam Car Challenge team. In 2009, more than a century after Marriot set his record, hit an average speed of 140 mph.
As encouraging as the feat is for enthusiasts of steam power, a closer look at the record-setting car reveals some significant downsides. First of all, it was 25 feet long and weighed three tons. It left a great something to be desired in terms of acceleration, hitting its top speed after two and a half miles. And it wasn’t as green as it could have been, burning petroleum to heat its water supply.
Today, Cyclone Power Technologies is the main dog in the steam power engine market. Its Cyclone Mark V Engine can use a variety of fuels, from gasoline to natural gas to biofuels. It can superheat water to 1200°F in five seconds. Even better, it collects and cools the steam, reusing it- so the water never needs to be replaced. The design was picked up by defense contractor Raytheon for military purposes, but isn’t scheduled to show up in cars anytime in the immediate future.
But it’s a promising technology, and proof that steam power could make a comeback. But considering the head start of natural gas and electric powered cars, it’s hard to imagine that steam will ever be king again.
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