Deconstructing Technology

There’s No Replacement for Steam

So we moved from large engines, to large steam engines and now to steam. Steam has been used for power, by turning or pushing, for half a millenia. It’s been used for heating and to drive steam engines. We’ve had steam-powered cars, airplanes, ships, and trains. We don’t have any of those any more. What we do still have is steam heat and steam used in power generation.

Regardless of the fuel source — coal, natural gas, nuclear, or solar — power plants still use steam to this day to drive the large turbines that drive the generators that make electricity so you can use your computer to read this blog. So, it’s no wonder we love steam here at Atomic Toasters.

But why steam? Well, it turns out that it’s impressively efficient, with up to 90% of the energy converted to motion. Reaction turbines are generally used because of their high efficiencies. In a reaction turbine the steam is directed at the turbine blades by stator blades. The steam accelerates through the stator blade and decelerates as it crosses the rotor blade. There is no net change in velocity through a stage, but there is a change in pressure and temperature commensurate with the work done (energy expended) in that stage. Multi-stage systems allow the steam to use as much of its energy as possible driving the turbine before it is condensed and returned to the boilers.

So, while the steam boat and the steam train have gone the way of the minidisc, steam is still being used to power the expansion of technology. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?

[Image Credits: Turbines Technoly, Siemens Pressebild]

  • Well, technically steam is still used as part of the drive train of nuclear powered ships. It is also used to power catapults that launch planes from the deck of aircraft carriers.
    There are some places where steam locomotives are still in daily use (not just for tourism).
    Turbines are neat. I have an experimental model one that uses a radial turbine from a desktop demonstration set.
    [youtube ueoT-FVh09s youtube]

    • I believe that all current nuclear ships use the nuke plant to produce steam to drive turbines that drive generators that produce electricity for electric motors to actually turn the propellers. That electricity is also used to power ship systems and, in the case of the newer US aircraft carriers, drive the mag-drive launcher systems.

      • The Professor

        Just out of curiosity, could a nuclear ship use anything besides steam to generate propulsion, either by generating electricity or other means? I've been sitting here thinking, and I can't recall anything besides some sort of heat exchanger system being used to generate steam. I suppose some sort of gas could be used, but it wouldn't be very efficient.
        Do you know of something else?

      • sport_wagon

        It looks like it's way cooler than that . . . the steam drives the propellers directly!

        I love Nimitz-class carriers.

        • Oooh…

          I had not realized the Nimitz class drove the shafts directly. That's awesome.

          • The Professor


        • Mad_Hungarian

          The real question is why don't we have nuke powered cargo ships? If we must move Chinese made products halfway around the world to sell 'em here, why don't we do it without emitting greenhouse gases? Has there ever been an accident with radiation release involving a nuke powered surface ship? I know that cargo ships occasionally collide and run aground (spilling prodigious amounts of fuel oil when they do so), but for heavens sake, we put nuclear reactors in warships that the enemy attacks with torpedoes!

          • Stay tuned.

          • P161911
          • Shhhhhhhh….!

          • Oops. Did P161911 let the steam out of that one?

          • Sounds like a "boiler" plate comment…

          • pj134

            It's probably less a matter of it getting out and more a matter of governments not wanting to provide enriched nuclear fuel to the private sector for something that is highly mobile and highjackable.

  • P161911

    One of the more interesting steam plants is the one in Midland, Michigan. I learned of this when I worked as a co-op for Dow Chemical. It was originally supposed to be a nuclear power plant, but things didn't work out. It now generates electricity for Michigan and industrial stem for Dow Chemical.

  • OA5599

    Without steam, there would be no steampunk.

    Peter Gabriel would be disappointed, too.

    [youtube PrsLK3AeTk4&feature=related youtube]

    • The Professor

      Well. We can't have that.