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Steam: The Original Alternative Fuel

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On: Fri, Nov 1, 2013 at 1:38PM | By: Bill Wilson

Steam: The Original Alternative Fuel

These days the news is filled with stories about alternative fuels. Whether it’s biodiesel, ethanol, electricity, or what-have-you, it seems that someone, somewhere has built a car that will run on it. But, long before the modern environmental movement, steam-driven vehicles were common sights on American roads.

Before cars even existed, people were crossing the country in steam-powered trains. So it only made sense that, when autos began to appear in the late 1800s, this proven form of technology was the first to be used for their engines.

The idea behind these motors is simple: when water is heated to 212° it starts turning into a gas, one which rapidly expands and creates pressure. By tapping into this force, steam engines push pistons attached to wheels. The wheels turn and the vehicle moves forward.

Inventors and innovators across the globe built experimental steam cars during the second half of the 19th century. But the first commercially viable model didn’t appear until 1896. Known as the Stanley Steamer, these vehicles were huge sellers up until 1924.

At first, the water that was used as fuel boiled off rapidly, requiring frequent refills. Later on, however, the builders added a condenser—a device that turned the used steam back into liquid water. This innovation greatly extended the Steamer’s range and made automobiles popular.

Steam’s moment of greatest glory came in 1906 at Ormond Beach, Florida. In that year a Stanley Steamer driven by a man named Fred Marriott broke the speed record for a land-based vehicle by topping 127 mph. By the standards of the time this was an amazing feat. It made steam-powered cars legendary and boosted their sales worldwide.

Steam cars offer many advantages. They use lighter, simpler engines. They don’t require transmissions. And, since the only combustible fuel they burn is used to heat the water supply, they create fewer greenhouse gases in smaller amounts than gas-powered vehicles, depending on the fuel used.

However, they also have their share of drawbacks. It takes several minutes for the engine to heat enough water to propel the car. Also, in many early models, the boiler (the large tank used to heat the water) tended to explode, causing severe burns to the driver. While this problem was fixed in the Stanley Steamer, it gave steam cars a bad image in the minds of many people.

Henry Ford drove the final nail in steam’s coffin when he came out with the gas-powered Model T. It was the first safe, reliable auto that was cheap enough for most people to afford. In recent years, however, inventors in both America and Europe have built new versions of steam-driven vehicles. Some of these entrepreneurs plan to sell their machines on the open market. So it may be that steam’s best days are yet ahead. Time will tell. In the meantime, you can see a steam-powered car in action by watching this brief video.

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