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lucillelucillelucille's avatar

If the steam engine is more efficient,why do we not have steam cars?

Asked by lucillelucillelucille (34310points) September 14th, 2010

Every power plant is steam based,so it’s obviously more efficient than internal combustion.So why don’t we have cars that run on steam?

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42 Answers

TexasDude's avatar

They don’t have much horsepower and they take a long time to start.

bob_'s avatar

Same reason planes aren’t made of the same material as their black boxes: weight.

You don’t see a power plant go from 0 to 60 in a few seconds, do you? ;-)

Scooby's avatar

Steam cars just didn’t hack it back in the day, they were too expensive to mass produce I believe & too many hazards with fire :-/

Cruiser's avatar

HS! Could imagine the explosions that a head on collision would bring between two steam boiler cars? OUCH!!

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard -We do know that there is way more power in steam than internal combustion.Applying the same amount of research & development to steam engines could have solved this problem long ago in my humble op[inion ;)

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@bob-Apples and oranges.Efficient is efficient. :)

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Scooby-What about all the gasoline you’re carrying? Steam boilers had solid fuels.Who’s to say they couldn’t be electric or some other fuel or combo?

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Cruiser-Steam engines had they not been replaced by internal combustion,would certainly look and function much differently than you remember.They would most certainly be small because of the incredible amout of power thay would generate.We’re not talking about 2 18th century steam trains colliding,Mr Conductor! XD

think of all the gasoline you’re carrying!

jaytkay's avatar

If you go electric you might as well just drive the wheels instead of adding the weight of a boiler, turbine, and water to the car.

If small steam turbines were efficient, I imagine portable and household generators would use them.

Scooby's avatar


They’re looking into hydrogen power these days I believe :-/
Unfortunately very expensive again but it looks like it could well be on the way, once they figure out how to mass produce & store the stuff. :-/
steam cars needed to carry a water too, This will be the only waste product of the hydrogen car.. water vapour…..

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@jaytkay -I’m not thinking 18th century boiler here.A modern steam engine would look nothing like the engines of old.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Scooby-Why couldn’t a modern steam engine reclaim it’s water?

Scooby's avatar

Here’s the link to the hydro car & yes the Japs did it first!

Scooby's avatar

I guess it could but even so would still need to be replenished at some point to full capacity. :-/

LuckyGuy's avatar

Steam engines are very efficient and one speed -load point. They are designed to run at that sweet spot all day.
The engine in your car needs to run a low and high speeds as well as light load and heavy load and all combinations in between. We expect it to start at the push of a button or twist of a key and be ready to drive off within one second of start. Steam engines take time to light and build up pressure.
Sure, steam engines work, but consumers want their cars to move NOW. Not 10 seconds from now. One of the difficulties with the diesel here was trying to convince the consumer to wait 5 seconds for the glow plug to warm up before turning the key on cold days. People did not want to wait.

The other problem is that pesky issue of water freezing at 0 C. Darn it.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Scooby -We know steam has more power per cubic therefore why not apply modern tecnology towards the idea of harnessing this simple,proven power source?

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@WorriedGuy-Who’s to say we have to boil water? Why not some other element or a combination of elements to create steam or pressure?Again,pick up research at the point we left the steam engine and think of what we’d have had we stuck with it?

Cruiser's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille It’s all about weight….we need lighter cars not heavier cars and the heavy boilers required are one of the achilles heel of steam car technology. Great idea…simply way too many hitches to make it acceptable as a solution to our mass transportation needs..

jaytkay's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille Your ride is here!

The ambitious design of the land speed record challenger envisaged a vehicle powered by a specially designed steam turbine of 380bhp. However, such a turbine on an open cycle, uses a lot of steam and this resulted in a vehicle with no less than 12 specially designed water tube boilers, fuelled by liquid propane….after many trials and tribulations, the car driven by Don Wales and Charles Burnett set a number of new records, including a new Guinness World Land Speed Record for a steam powered car at Edwards Air Force Base in California, with an average speed of 139.843mph for a measured mile, and 148.308 mph over two consecutive runs over a measured kilometer.

Ben_Dover's avatar

Where would you put all the wood or coal you need to boil the water? My trunk’s already full!

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Ben Dover-That is 18th century thinking,Consarnit! ;0

jaytkay's avatar

Why not some other element or a combination of elements to create steam or pressure?

At that point I you progress to gas turbines. The burning fuel drives the turbine blades directly. No boiler. Essentially a jet engine. Tanks, helicopters and ships use them.

Again I assume if they were cost-effective in cars they would be in cars.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Cruiser -Heavy boilers were required given the technology of the day.Today we have modern alloys and the like.There is still no way around it.You get more power from steam per cubic inch than anything we know of.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Ben_Dover -I drive a car that is 45 years old XD

LuckyGuy's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille We use water because it is cheap and so darn good at storing and recovering heat energy. The heat of vaporization is 539 calories per gram. It takes the same amount of energy to heat 539 grams of water one degree as it does do convert one gram of water to steam. That is an awesome ratio. I don’t know of anything higher. I suppose we could do a search.
Also water does its vaporization at the relatively low temperature of 100C. At that temp it is easy to find suitable materials. If you find some magic eutectic solid or liquid that beats water let me know.

Cruiser's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille Nothing I can find supports that ability to produce a lightweight crash-proof boiler that would support your whimsy…I will take my Tin Lizzy over your pipe-dream any day! ;)

jaytkay's avatar

Even though steam holds a lot of energy, that is a totally separate question from the efficiency and power-to-weight ratio of the boiler & turbine.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@jaytkay -A jet engine is extremely inefficient and we are talking about steam engines and ways of creating steam.Look at any power plant on the world today,they all are stream driven,unless you are talking about Niagara Falls which uses water gravity.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@worriedguy -Yes! You obviously understand the process.Think of what a steam engine could be today had we not left the technology:)

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Cruiser -It’s still the most efficient way.Don’t limit your thinking ;)

Scooby's avatar

I found this article, I’ve retyped it out as it was far too long to cut & paste essentially it explains the reasons why it can’t yet be done efficiently :-/

“Designing a steam engine fit for the demands of a 21st Century would be somewhat of a challenge, however.
basically you’d have to come up with a design, which is innovative in some ways so innovative, in fact, that the steam is exploring patenting the design.
The engines work in quite a simple way, Water is passed through a steam generator where it is heated by burning propane gas into superheated steam.
That steam is then fed into nozzles on a two-stage turbine arrangement.
Then the moving gas stream strikes the turbine wheels and starts them rotating , a bit like a small scale power station, Once you have a turbine that goes round, rotational power, that along with gear ratios can be used to drive the wheels and once we have the wheels rotating we can make it go forward fast.
It sounds simple enough, but there are still big challenges with technologically to generate enough power in such a small vehicular space. One difficulty would be getting a turbine and transmission system in such a small space.
I can’t imagine it being the complete road ahead for cars on our streets.
Gas turbines have been used in the past, But the problem of turbines is that to be efficient, they have to run at a predetermined speed.
The very nature of road cars is that their speed changes all the time, so this design would be no good for road vehicles”.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Everybody-Thanks for your thoughts and ideas.
I’m off to the mall for a new pair of heels in my 45 year old car XD

Cruiser's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille Again the thinking of a true innovator that you are….but efficiency and profitability are rarely successful bed partners. If an efficient and profitable steam power-plant could be built that would compete with gas or diesel power it would have been built over a 100 years ago. I think it was Al Gore who last got on this band wagon…check with him and see if he has any new ideas for your project. ;)

Now hydrogen cars on the other hand are something worth looking into.

john65pennington's avatar

There is a lot more money in oil than water. think about it. its all about the money.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Steam plants (my particular area of whatever expertise I have) are not necessarily “more efficient”. That is, the process is: burn fuel, heat water to steam, drive a turbine to drive a generator to produce electricity. It’s an inherently inefficient process, a huge Rube Goldberg machine.

There are, in fact, a great number of direct-fired turbine-generator sets in the US and around the world. Though I don’t know the efficiency numbers for them, they are quite efficient—more so than coal. But the fuel to drive them is also quite expensive, and the machinery itself is barely less expensive than much larger coal-fired boilers and turbine-generator sets. They become cost-effective electricity generators when several combinations of factors come into play:

1. The cost for natural gas (the most common fuel for gas-fired turbines, which is the most common form of direct electricity production) goes down, and supply is plentiful and relatively assured over a long plant life. Because of the world market for natural gas, this isn’t always the case.

2. The power is needed immediately by someone who is willing and able to pay the price for that kind of immediate needs-gratification, meaning that the producer is willing to pay the higher prices for fuel (natural gas being much more expensive per BTU than coal).

3. The power is needed in a relatively constrained area or market. Most gas-fired turbines don’t have the sheer size of large utility electric plants. Steam boilers generally run power plants of up to 1000 megawatts. Gas-fired turbines are smaller.

I’m not going to publicize cost figures, but take it from me that the per-megawatt cost of coal-fired electric power is considerably lower than the per-megawatt cost of gas-fired power. (And even though the gas-fired turbine power is inherently cleaner, because natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the added cost of air pollution controls on coal plants still make for a much lower cost, even over the entire 40-year life of the plant.)

So when you need base loading for a large metropolitan or industrial base and can handle the infrastructure to deliver coal (and resulting bottom ash and flyash at the back end), you’d look to coal as the primary source NOT because of efficiency, but because of lower overall cost.

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
LostInParadise's avatar

We started out with steam powered boats and locomotives, which were replaced by gasoline engines.

bane5454's avatar

Simply put, it’s impractical to power a car using steam because of the weight of the engine that would be required to make the steam and because of the time it would take to produce the steam.

sonataking05's avatar

Ever wonder what the relative humidity would be if there were 650,000,000 steam engine riding around the world? That’s one of the answers Jay Leno is the owner of a few of the first steam cars ever built. The cars take a lot of time to start, still need some sort of fuel to make water into steam and are very high maintenance. These are just a few reasons that steam cars are not common.

Bustertom's avatar

The CHP (California Highway Patrol) do have steam cars that they don’t use… too good and too frightening…(150mph in total silence!) The real reason is this: just imagine what would happen if gasoline or diesel were no longer required. The alterations to the commercial structure of any country would be huge and governments would lose fortunes in tax revenues. Build a steam engine that works and “they” will pay you a fortune to forget the idea…. :¬)

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