The Obama administration, through the EPA and the DOT, on Tuesday released new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that mandate a national fleet average of 54.5 MPG by the year 2025. That figure was the result of negotiations with automakers, state officials and environmental activists. Despite the industry’s apparent support, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign called them “extreme”. President Obama responded by implying that Romney was some kind of 19th century Luddite, suggesting that the former Massachusetts prefers steam engines.
“My opponent called my position on fuel efficiency standards extreme. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem extreme to me to want to have more fuel efficient cars. Maybe the steam engine is more his speed.”
The problem with that remark is that steam engines may indeed play an important role in America’s energy efficiency. Even curiouser, Mr. Obama’s own administration is funding steam engine research. For the past few years, Cyclone Power Technologies of Pompano Beach, Florida has been developing what they call “a Rankine Cycle heat regenerative external combustion” otherwise known as a steam engine, that can run on just about any liquid or solid fuel, or even waste heat from industrial processes or internal combustion engines. As a matter of fact, Mr. Obama’s own Department of Defense has been funding Cyclone’s development of a steam engine to power a 10KW generator for military vehicles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also looking into using the Cyclone engine as a power source for battlefield robots that could live off the land and refuel themselves by foraging for biomass to burn. Cyclone says that their engine can run on “virtually any fuel (or combination of fuels) including today’s promising new bio fuels, while emitting far fewer pollutants than traditional gas or diesel powered internal combustion engines.”
To be honest, though Cyclone has been pitching their engine to possibly replace the internal combustion engine as a motive force for automobiles, it seems that another application of Cyclone’s engine will likely find a market first. A Rankine cycle engine uses external sources of heat for power, which means that as long there are enough BTU available, you can use just about any heat source. That means “waste heat” can be used to run the engine. What is waste heat? Well, to give you an example, a typical gasoline engine might have a thermal efficiency of 25%. That means that 75% of the energy is wasted as heat, mostly in the form of hot exhaust gases. No process is 100% efficient so that kind of waste heat is generated in a wide variety of industrial processes. Nowadays industrial “smokestacks” aren’t really emitting much smoke, i.e. particulates and harmful gases. Environmental laws ensure that exhaust has been scrubbed fairly clean. Most of those plumes of “smoke” are really just steam, which condenses as it hits the cooler atmospheric air. That steam contains waste heat. Cyclone Power claims that their Waste Heat Engine (WHE) can run on heat as low as 500 degrees F. That means that it can recover energy, spin a dynamo and generate electricity from a variety of sources, like industrial ovens and furnaces, landfill, refinery and other industrial waste gas flares, biomass combustion, and even the exhaust of internal combustion engines, both stationary and those used to power vehicles. BMW has already more or less proven that automotive concept with their “Turbo Steamer“, a test bed that uses a Rankine engine running off exhaust and coolant heat to assist the combustion engine, claiming 10-15% improvements in fuel efficiency and power. Even if Cyclone’s steam engine proves to be impractical as an automotive power plant, wide scale use of waste heat engines could significantly improve the energy efficiency of American industry.
After Pres. Obama reacted to the Romney campaign’s criticism by dissing Romney and steam engines, I asked Cyclone Power Technologies for their reaction. Cyclone is in an interesting position. They’d love to leverage Obama’s comments into more publicity for their company and engine and they certainly want to rebut the notion that steam engines are archaic, but since they indeed have government contracts, I’m sure they’re not eager to be seen as criticizing the president. Getting in the middle of a political campaign is not always a great idea for a business.
Chris Nelson, Cyclone’s president sent TTAC this response:
“We are a small U.S. business, employing talented American workers who are developing a 21st Century steam engine that is powerful, clean, fully fuel-flexible and efficient enough to beat these new CAFE standards. We are working with the U.S. military to make their power supplies more efficient, and developing other ways to turn waste into energy using our steam technology. Furthermore, we are currently building the car and engine that will attempt to break the land speed record for steam powered vehicles. We hope that President Obama and Governor Romney recognize the incredible possibilities that Cyclone’s modern steam technology present to advance our independence from foreign oil and protect our environment, while supporting American jobs.”
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS