By on May 5, 2012

Cyclone Power's 5th Generation Prototype Steam Engine

In my post about mercury arc rectifiers used to charge early electric vehicles, I alluded to the competition between gasoline, electricity and steam in the early days of the automobile. Reader Ryoku75 asked “What happened to steam-driven cars?” It’s my task to cover the oddball engine desk here at TTAC and we will be having a report on new engine technologies on display at the SAE World Congress soon enough once I clear some work from my day job off the to-do list, but to answer Ryoku75’s question, it just so happens that there is timely news about steam power. They weren’t at the SAE congress this year, but in recent years a startup called Cyclone Power has displayed their “Rankine Cycle heat regenerative external combustion” engine at the engineers’ convention. If Rankine Cycle heat regenerative external combustion engine is a bit of a mouthful, try “steam engine”.

LSR Streamliner "Speed Demon" will provide the basic layout and aero package.

Cyclone is on the fifth generation of their engine, which has a patented steam generator and is protected, Cyclone Power says, by 28 other patents as well. The company has made some technology agreements, most recently with China’s Great Wall Alternative Power Systems. In addition to promoting their engine as a transportation alternative, Cyclone is also selling waste heat recovery generators. You can see their latest prototype running on a test stand. Cyclone hasn’t yet, though, shown their engine actually powering a car. That’s about to change in a big way. Cyclone founder, inventor Harry Schoell, is backing Team Steam, an American effort to set a new Land Speed Record for steam powered vehicles. The current record, set in 2009 (which itself broke a mark over a century old) is 148.166 MPH (some sources say 148.308 MPH), set by a British team.

The Cyclone vehicle will based on Speed Demon, a 436 MPH Bonneville-proven streamliner designed and built by respected speed enthusiasts George Poteet and Ron Main. Speed Demon has an almost unheard of for a ground vehicle drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.08. The Gen V Cyclone engine is a six cylinder design claimed to put out 100 HP at 3,600 RPM, which isn’t bad for a 250 lb engine that will run on almost any liquid fuel. With the right aerodynamics and low enough weight, 100 horsepower is probably enough to get up to 150 MPH and break the record. The Cyclone LSR car, though, will likely accelerate more briskly than one would expect from just a hundred horsepower. Cyclone claims that their engine also produces 850lbs-ft of torque at stall, unheard of from an engine that lightweight. All of that torque will be available from a dead stop and it will be a smooth ride because with all their torque steam powered cars don’t use gearboxes.

No word yet on when they hope to make their first effort at breaking the record. So far they have put together a technical team and right now they’re gathering up sponsors and technical/promotional partners.

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


Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

23 Comments on “Steampunks Rejoice, Cyclone Power Sponsored “Team Steam” Will Attempt Land Speed Record...”

  • avatar

    Thanks for the info, I hope that someday we’ll have steam cars once again.

    With the Doble Steam Car pulling out 0-57 in 10 seconds back in the 1920’s, its anyones guess what a steam engine can do in a lightweight 4WD and 80’s years of advancement.

  • avatar

    I wonder if steam and external engines in general can be more efficient than IC. The Cyclone engine looks like a clever packaging solution designed to extract as much heat from the steam as possible.

    But I wonder… it’s a closed system. In the early steam locomotives, cold water was injected at BDC…. this caused the steam from the downstroke to condense and create a vacuum to pull the piston back up. My almost-funked 1st year physics knowledge tells me that would increase the efficiency, as there would be a greater difference between in operating temperatures of the heat engine and what-not.

    Anyways, I hope Cyclone does well. Forward to the past!

    • 0 avatar

      In general external combustion engines are more efficient than internal combustion engines, because they don’t waste as much of the heat generated by combustion. Unfortunately, ECE are less suited for use in a car because they don’t change engine speeds very quickly.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, a piston steam engine can be as efficient as existing automotive engines. More important, the efficiency of steam engines tend to be most efficient at part load where autmotive engines spend most of their time. A steam car would also avoid many losses in power transmission. The peak efficiency of the Cyclone automotive system is a bit higher than conventional automotive gas engines, but the former advantages listed would take the mpg a lot higher than the typical automobile (all else equal).

  • avatar

    Don’t know much about this but had to learn some things when teaching technology. It seems to me that the greatest area for advancement would involve the steam turbine and not the steam recip. I think that knowledge had stagnated there although some tankers are probably still sailing. Turbines, however, had had years of research and development. Possibly not feasable for something with wheels.

    What do you think Ronnie. I guess we can improve if we are still improving the pushrod engine.

    • 0 avatar

      The piston steam engine is definitely preferable to a turbine in the automotive application. The torque profile of a piston steam engine is ideal for automotive use, and it’s too hard to get high efficiency in a small turbine without extremely high speeds and compounding that would cause all sorts of engineering difficulties.

  • avatar

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and suppose that it won’t accelerate that much better than most 100hp cars of similar weight although it should start pulling ahead once aerodynamics take over.

    Direct drive with tire size and final drive geared for 150mph at 3600 rpm (about 1.65:1 with normal sized car tires) means there’s not much torque multiplication going on. Using some rough calculations a car with the same size tires, a 3.33 first gear ratio and 4.11 final drive would put the same amount of power to the ground with a little over 100 lbs-ft. as the steam engine’s 850. 100hp is still only 100hp.

    • 0 avatar

      This is true, but Ronnie is right that it will be a smooth ride. What impresses me is that they have a steam engine spinning at 3600 RPM. Pretty cool.

    • 0 avatar

      850 ft lbs. Pfft. Last car I drove put more to the ground in first gear. And that had only 55 ft lbs at the crank.

      Granted, it was a ridiculously SHORT first gear.

  • avatar

    Interesting tech, but 30% thermal efficient steam engine that relies on a combustible primary energy source isn’t that impressive when gas turbine engines are already more efficient, and of course electric motors are by far the most efficient. Combining an electric motor with a GT engine would probably blow this away in total system efficiency. There may be ways to extract more thermal efficiency out of this concept engine for example, using a mixture of ammonia and water as the working fluid and optimizing for a kalina cycle or dropping the piston spider gear setup altogether and going with a multi-stage steam turbine for shaft work output.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re not likely to drop the spider gear since it’s one of their patents. I think the problem with gas turbines is that they’re not practical car engines. I suppose you could go with a serial hybrid with the GT running a generator, which is how, I believe, we generate electrical power when using coal or natural gas.

      Part of the problem with using steam is weight. To extract the maximum efficiency out of the system, as with an internal combustion fired turbine, you end up needing all sorts of condensers and regenerators. You also have to carry around all that water or water substitute in addition to your fuel. All that adds weight. In a stationary powerplant application, weight doesn’t really matter.

      Frankly, I think that Cyclone will end up making more money from their recovered waste heat engines than on automotive applications. A lot of BTUs go right up industrial exhaust stacks. Using that waste heat to generate electricity makes a lot of sense if the finances work out.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah recovered energy is the likely cash cow here. I work for a company who’s other division designs heating and cooling systems (building HVAC) around waste heat its a very hot emerging market.

      • 0 avatar

        Waste heat recovery and combined heating and power generation plants for campuses are definitely of interest right now. For vehicles, using waste heat to preheat fuel before combustion has shown promise as far back as 20 years ago:

      • 0 avatar

        The issue is that the temperature differential limits the possible efficiency, Cyclone is doing very good at achieving 30%.. a diesel will break 40%, a Prius atkinson ICE does 38%.

        The advantage of the steam engine is no need for pollution control equipment and no need for a transmission, plus it can burn any kind of crap fuel.. those are massive cost savings in a car.

        100hp is plenty to cruise on the hwy at 100mph for a modern midsized car.

      • 0 avatar

        No need for pollution control? Steam is only an intermediate working fluid, it doesn’t actually provide the energy to the system.

      • 0 avatar

        Right, no pollution.. the cyclonic action burns the fuel so completely (and slowly) that you dont need to fit a catalytic converter or soot filter.. big savings.

        The working fluid is water and supercritical steam, that also acts as the internal lubricant so the engine does not use oil either, no oil changes.

        At least thats what I get from their website but I still dont see any cars powered with one.

    • 0 avatar

      nickoo, the problem is more complicated than merely comparing peak thermal efficiencies. A gas turbine can be highly efficient, but only within a narrow power range. Also, small turbines aren’t nearly so efficient as their larger counterparts. A small gas turbine in a series hybrid configuration makes somes sense as you suggested. However, then you have to consider the losses in energy conversion (generator losses, inverter or controller losses, motor losses, battery losses, etc.). The reason series hybrid configurations achieve higher mpg in cars is quite simply because the efficiency of automotive engines vary a great deal over their power range… it tends to be very high at relatively high outputs and higher speeds, and very low at low outputs and lower speeds. Operating a small engine in a battery charging configuration can compensate. Parallel hybrid configurations raise mpg for similar reasons. On the other hand, steam engines see their highest thermal effciencies at relatively low part load where automotive engines normally operate… and the extensive heat regeneration of the Cyclone design minimizes how much the efficieny varies over the entire power range.

  • avatar

    Had a model sterling engine that worked for over 40 minutes on a cup of coffee. Somehow, it seems like a real one could run a generator even though they normally run short on torque. When I see the waste heat coming out of those stacks on refinery row on the Houston ship channel my mind does overtime work and my eyes burn.

    I am unsure if anyone does work on the sterling but it seems as appropriate as any external combustion engine.

  • avatar

    well how about just build a effective steam engine that can use less fuel and get us around to go back & forth work , wal-mart , safeway etc.

    these land speed record rarely connect with our daily mundane life.
    raising race horse does not resolve our world hunger which needs plough horses to work the field.

  • avatar

    I like hearing about alternative engine technologies but it seems we are still far away from a breakthrough technology. It would be great if something was invented by someone tinkering in their home garage, despite the billions poured into research by all the big car companies.
    There was a TTAC post and video a few months back on compressed-air engines made by a European company. I thought these were a great idea for small urban runabouts, and electric compressors would be easy enough to install anywhere, even home etc. and perhaps combining with other tech as a kind of hybrid. I think I’d prefer this to electric tech, battery technology seems to have plateaued(sic) and batteries have their own issues of decreased efficiency over time, cold weather capacity, eventual disposal…
    one link here:

    • 0 avatar

      Even better than compressed air motors on the small cars are self-contained compressed air hybrid energy recapture systems installed on large trucks.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Poteet and Main? That’s a winning combination.

    With numerous speed record accomplishments to their names, include pushing a Ford Flathead powered streamliner to supra-300 mph speeds, it’s clear that if something is powered by an engine, they’ll make it run faster than anyone thinks possible.

    Check for the most impressive LSR achievement in the past decade. Jokes about cars being old enough to vote and drink pale in comparison to an engine block which qualifies for Social Security benefits.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • here4aSammich: I lived with a 1978 Chevette from 1985 to 1987. But seriously, I can’t tell you how glad I am to...
  • here4aSammich: Building it here would be better.
  • here4aSammich: My dad was a service manager at a Cadillac-Olds dealer during this mess. Deactivating the mess was...
  • Corey Lewis: Lol
  • thornmark: Isn’t Lincoln ranked LAST in the CR surveys? if so, I’d say Ford is dumping what they...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber