By on December 17, 2009


The steamer is the granddaddy of all engines, dating back some 2,000 years. All of the earliest “cars” were steamers, and the golden age of steam cars in the teens and twenties resulted in some fabulously refined vehicles. The Stanley was very successful and set the world speed record in 1906 that was only broken recently; and the ultimate development, the highly refined Doble, created a legend. The advantages of the steam engine are the ability to burn almost any kind of fuel, generate maximum torque at starting rpm, no need for a transmission, and the ability to power the loudest of horns. There have been numerous attempts at automotive steam engine revivals; but their many downsides have relegated them to the obscure pages of wikipedia: delay in getting up a head of steam, bulky condensers, oil contamination of the steam, inefficiencies, etc.. But Cyclone Power Technologies has been developing a radical update on a compact, efficient, eco-friendly steam engine. Before we dismiss it as more hot vapor in our usual dismissive TTAC manner, let’s take a closer look first:cyclone_engine

Under development for quite some time, Cyclone claims to have addressed all the shortcomings of steamers in one compact package. For a detailed explanation, go here, or here’s my Cliff Notes version: almost any fuel can be burned in the flash boiler (1), which super heats water to 1200 degrees F in as little as five seconds. Steam powers the pistons in the radial engine (4), which spins on hi-tech ceramic bearings that are lubricated only by water. There is no need for any type of oil for lubrication, eliminating contamination and the need for oil changes, etc. Spent steam enters the condensing unit (5B), where a fan powered heat exchanger preheats the intake air for more efficient combustion. Cyclone promises efficiencies comparable to gas and diesel engines, potentially even higher, depending on the fuel and its source (orange peel oil, for instance). Emissions for external combustion engines are intrinsically low. Sound perfect? Well, there are a few issues to sort out. But it should smell good burning that orange peel oil.

First, Cyclone has yet to complete development of the whole integrated package. They’ve operated the engine and various components separately, but not as contemplated here. The engine is going to be used for US Land Steam Record Team in their attempt to break the world land speed record for steam vehicles in Bonneville, UT, as early as next August (see separate post).

engine3The warm up time is still an issue. Cyclone says ten to fifteen seconds to generate steam, but that’s not a full head. That will take about a minute or more. And that’s all dependent on how cold it is outside. No quick morning get-aways. Well, remote starters would deal with that. Questions as to mass-production build costs are unknown, as well as the reliability of the water-lubricated engine.

There are two main attractive features that will likely keep Cyclone in development money for at least a while longer. Number one is the ability to burn almost any type of fuel from orange peels, palm oil, cottonseed oil, algae, used motor oil and fryer grease, as well as traditional fossil fuels, propane, butane, natural gas and even powdered coal. In a post-oil world, that might come in handy. By then, they should have it fleshed out.

The other intriguing possibility is in using waste heat to generate the steam. Theoretically, a diesel truck engine could be combined with a Cyclone, running mainly off the diesel’s exhaust, and burning additional diesel if needed to provide a quick burst of extra power. It lends a whole new meaning to the word hybrid . In a scenario like this, efficiencies of up to 55% or greater could be contemplated. That compares to about 30 to 35% for the diesel alone. For a more extensive discussion on this and other possibilities, head over to GreenCarCongress’ article on the Cyclone.

The verdict? It sounds more promising than the steam-injected Bobcat by the length of a Bonneville record run. But then I’m old enough to remember reading several articles titled “A Renaissance For The Automotive Steam Engine?” or something along those lines in Popular Science over the decades. So here’s my addition to the genre. I somehow suspect it won’t be the last either.

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21 Comments on “A Renaissance For The Automotive Steam Engine?...”

  • avatar

    But no special DOE loans for them.  Don’t they know that the government is supposed to pick the winners?
    I wish them the best of luck.  Still skeptical, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Prospects of building these engines for stationary electric power generation in a bio-mass co-generation situation are a lot more likely than is its use as an automotive engine.
    Even then, a long shot.

  • avatar

    A steam engine can’t approach an ICE for energy efficiency. You’re transitioning the energy into another material (water) rather than using the energy directly in cylinder. It’s one of the reasons direct gas turbine generation is much more efficient than coal-to-steam-to-turbine generation for a given theoretical energy input.
    I’m sure it’s marvellously clever otherwise – and will surely find a flexible fuel role as John Horner suggests.

    • 0 avatar

      Steam engines are actually about the most thermally efficient engine out there.  The big efficiency gain comes from building your pressure on liquid water instead of a gas.  Compression cycles on turbine and piston engines can take upwards of three quarters the power being generated in some cases.  It takes a lot of work to compress all that gas.  Compressing a liquid, on the other hand, takes practically no work at all.  That’s why steam engines cool their exhaust steam to a liquid in a condenser.  It wastes some heat, but the gains from compressing a liquid instead of a gas more than make up for that loss (plus the waste heat is usually used to pre-heat the compressed liquid before it enters the burner).
      I think this engine is a great idea.  It’d be particularly nice in a post apocalypse mad-max scenario :)

  • avatar

    “…a fan powered heat exchanger preheats the intake air for more efficient combustion.” — I thought it was the other way around.  Isn’t that the reason for cold air intakes and water cooled turbo intakes? Cold air is denser and provides more efficient combustion.
    This is interesting, but it’s all talk until the complete unit is tested in multiple vehicles for 100,000+ miles.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Internal and external combustion are two fairly different animals. In an IC engine, a cooler/denser air mixture allows a higher amount of fuel to be mixed with it, leading to more power. That’s not a consideration in the external combustion process, since it’s not limited by how much air can inhaled by any one gulp as in the IC engine.
      I assume the pre-heating makes burning a wide range of oils and fuels easier, and perhaps saves energy, since the air in the combustion process needs to be heated less, starting from a higher base point. That’s my own take; I could be wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re probably right Paul.  The Chrysler turbines got much better economy once they added a heat exchanger to preheat the intake air from the exhaust.  (This also helped to solve the problem of burning hot exhaust from the tailpipe.)

  • avatar

    BMW has been working on what they call the “turbosteamer”, using the waste heat from a gasoline fired ICE to run a two stage swash plate Rankin engine that is connected to the ICE’s crankshaft via a chain.  BMW reported a 10-15% increase in both power and fuel efficiency. It’s a pretty elegant solution, incorporating heat from the exhaust system and the engine’s cooling system.


    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Indeed, that is a lot more interesting than Cyclone’s idea is. Pie-in-the-sky automotive engines of the future make their appearance on the stage like horses on a merry-go-round, but nearly all of them come to nothing in the end. Turbine, rotary, the Scuderi split-cycle engine , Sturman’s electric valves, HCCI,  and countless others come and go.
      I’m not holding my breath.

  • avatar

    The drawing is not clear on this, but I’m curious if they use 1 or multiple expansion stages.   Extra stages improve steam engine efficiency a lot.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Yup, There always  seems to be a “next big thing  is  steam”  buzz. Once in a while  I  google on steam and  go  looking.  Nothing much,   Doble and  Stanley are still  the guys  to  beat a century later.   Steam is fine, it just doesn’t  quite deliver  the  efficientcy that ICEs do.

  • avatar

    I followed the description link:
    – they atomize the fuel? Like what is that supposed to be? Destroying the molecules of the fuel into C, H, etc.?
    – they ignore the problem they need some sort of huge cooler to operate the condenser. One could do it like Power plants and hook up to a river :-) I’d like to see the size requirement, it sure is larger than a standard car cooler.

    Twotone: gas turbines (Brayton cycles) with more than one compression stage have intercooling in order to compress more. However, before the combustion chamber there even may be a pre heater using waste heat from the turbine (the same way turbines may have multiple stages of reheating). this probably is not practical in airplanes, or cars. but is done in power stations to increase efficiency. The air entering the first stage of compressor sometimes even is cooled with a refrigerant to increase power in summer (and decrease efficiency). I just saw that in a combined cycle 150 MW powerplant.

    In Rankine cycle (which we have here, jsut with piston steam engine instead of steam turbine) preheating of air is good.
    Rankine cycle with turbines is more efficient than a gasoline motor, at least whne you built a 1000 MW powerplant. but I’m not sure if a small car steamplant is more efficient, especially not with a piston steam engine. a steam turbine at least doesn’t have much friction, valves, and mass (piston) moving forward and backward… it jsut runs forward all the time, like a wankel motor.

    Efficiency is about how you operate it. I think with 33% efficiency of gasoline engines, we msotly operate them at 10-15% efficiency since we run at so many differentloads, rpm… especially with oversized engines. Hence the hybrid that can operate gasoline engine more efficiently by using a smaller gas engine and loading it up more. It is possible steam engine doesn’t have such a part-load penalty and in reality would be more efficient.

    Since the steam generator has some lag time, sudden acceleration requires some steam storage, or electric booster.

    Not sure if diesel waste heat is hot enough to generate any meaningful steam (1200 F)

  • avatar

    Right now the temperature outside my window is about 10 F. Water is pretty solid in suchs temperatures. So, how’s that gonna be dealt with? Antifreeze would probably be a no-no. Are we looking at a Well-Below-Mason-Dixon-Model-Only here?

    • 0 avatar

      I believe that Stanley solved this by keeping a pilot flame going in the burner that kept the water warm.  This also helped to reduce startup time in cold temps.  Of course, if you left it til it ran out of fuel, you’d be screwed.
      Alcohol could probably be added to the water as an antifreeze.  It would also lower the boiling point of the water so the engine should build a head of steam faster in milder temperatures too.

  • avatar

    Talk about “peeling out”…

  • avatar

    Someone somewhere near DC has or had a STanley, an ’07, I think, in mint condition, which I would occasionally see at car shows. That car was beautiful and could really accelerate!

  • avatar

    As for the “loudest horns”, I bumped into a guy once who had a set of diesel locomotive air horns (for what it worth they are generally tuned to a tritone, a sort of anti-chord that is profoundly disturbing) on the top of his van attached to a scuba tank without regulator by the driver’s seat.  He would put on hearing protection before letting it rip.  Authority.

  • avatar

    they atomize the fuel? Like what is that supposed to be? Destroying the molecules of the fuel into C, H, etc.?

    Atomization is a fancy way of saying “sprayed to a fine mist” just like a fuel-injection nozzle. Conventional turbines atomize fuel as it is sprayed into the combustion can.

    they ignore the problem they need some sort of huge cooler to operate the condenser. One could do it like Power plants and hook up to a river :-) I’d like to see the size requirement, it sure is larger than a standard car cooler.

    They don’t need a huge cooler if the engine exhausts to a vacuum. Ships with steam plants use this method of condensing. Even with a nice cool ocean available, a vacuum condenser is preferred because it takes up a lot less hull space than atmospheric condensing.

  • avatar

    Water-lubricated ceramic bearings to eliminate oil-changes? The lubrication of bearings was never a problem with steam engines. It is the lubrication of cylinders, especially when using superheated steam at very high pressures that caused problems, or rather separating the oil from the exhaust steam before condensing.

  • avatar

    A true hybrid indeed.   I have always thought that a simple car which runs on banana peels – even badly –  would be infinitely more progressive than a complex car which merely extracts a few more BTUs from the last few barrels of oil.    It’s more Harrowsmith than Ward’s, but innovation often does come from the last place you’d look.
    The only question is what to do about Al Gore.   One can only imagine the pressure to send billions of dollars to developing nations struggling under the devastating effects of Global Peeling.

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