Green Future: Fuel Cells, Internal Combustion Engines or Steam Engines?

There are many ways to turn fuel into useful work in the for of electricity, mechanical motion or heat. The oldest approach is to use a steam engine or to be more generic, an external combustion engine. You heat and cool a liquid or gas to make it expand and contract causing some kind of motion.

The newest method is to use a fuel cell, where unlike in an internal or external combustion engine, an electric current is created directly when the fuel and oxidizer combine.

At the face of it, fuel cells seem most attractive. Solid oxide fuel cells are perhaps most promising as they allow one to use a variety of simple hydrocarbons as fuel such as methane, propane, and butane and reach high energy efficiencies of 60%, while being quiet.

In the past I’ve always tended to favor the most high tech and fancy solutions. Except over time you learn to read the fine print. Fancy solutions are often unreliable solutions. A bike with more gears tend to fail quicker than one without. The American M16 was heralded as a space age rifle when it came, but often could not deliver in real world situations. Sure it had very high precision and firing rate. However it would all to easily jam. The AK47 was ridiculed for its simplicity, but there was also a lot of its advantage. Anybody could learn to use it and repair it. It was very sturdy and did not easily jam.

I used to think nuclear fusion power would be our future and that I would be driving hydrogen fuel cell cars. Here we are 25 years after I imagined this and seemingly boring technology such as wind and solar cells is forging ahead. Fusion power seems no closer to a breakthrough. Hydrogen fuel cells cars still continues to be “just around the corner” while plain old battery driven electric cars are actually making major headway.

We used to think single stage to orbit type of space planes would be the future of space exploration. Instead it is 1960s style rockets in the form of Falcon 9 upgraded with modern computer control systems which is most promising.

Why Steam May Be the Future of Green Tech

This is one of the reasons why I’ve over the last year have come around to the idea that I should not discount steam engines, just because they are old technology. A lot of old technology can get new life when paired with modern insights and systems as Falcon 9 proved. Modern material know-how and manufacturing technology breaths new life into steam engines. They are no longer the big clunky beasts belching clouds of black smoke from large coal fired boilers.

Let me show you some pictures to convince you that modern steam looks very different from what you may imagine. Here is an example of a steam engine called the cyclone engine. You can see it is small enough to fit on a lawn mower. You can put it in a car or in a boat. There is no huge boiler.

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But, what does steam engines have to do with Green technology? How are they more green than internal combustion engines?

Originally the world switched to internal combustion engines because they gave higher efficiency, could be made smaller and lighter with the technology of the day, and would startup much faster.

However internal combustion engines have many problems:

  1. They are very picky about their fuel. Generally they are made for just one kind of fuel. They cannot easily be modified to run on other fuels.
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Shows how surprisingly simple a steam engine. There are no parts made from exotic materials,

The first point is relevant for our green shift because we don’t presently know what the future green fuel will be. It could be biodiesel, ethanol, wood pellets, silane, metal powder or say concentrated solar. That present a significant problem because you cannot easily or quickly change hundreds of millions of cars to a different engine type over night. Nor can we replace countless diesel generators used for local power generation around the world.

If local power generators and cars all used modern steam engines instead, then they can easily switch to new fuels as they arrive.

I am a big fan of electric cars, so I don’t see steam power as a replacement but as complementary. Electric cars offer a convenient way of storing energy but offers no way of generating power. Steam engines are useful complements to varying power output from solar and wind power. I also don’t think hybrid cars will ever be completely gone. Vehicles that require long range will benefit from being able to utilize a combustion engine.

Imagine getting stuck in a Siberian forrest while driving. With a steam engine, you can just chop up some wood to heat up the steam engine and get going. Okay not a realistic scenario for most people, but my point is that there will always be people with unusual transpiration routes which require more flexibility than a pure electric car provides.

Power Generator for the Home

Another interesting technical possibility with hybrid steam cars, is that since they are already setup to generate electricity, they could in theory provide power to your home. So instead of plugin in to charge your car, you plug in to “charge” your home.

That solves the problem of where to put a domestic local power generating unit. It is an excellent combination with solar roofed houses. When the sun is not shining you could simply startup you car to generate electricity.

For more flexibility, the house has a moderately sized battery already, so you don’t have to rush to turn on the steam engine as soon as there is no sun.

Batteries are great because they are very efficient and quick. You get back most of the energy you stored in them and they react immediately to any need. There is not startup procedure for a battery. It delivers electric current immediately when you plug it in.

The not so good parts about batteries is that they have lot energy density, are expensive and don’t hold power effectively for long times. Thus batteries are well suited for short term storage of smaller amounts of energy.

However a steam engine gives you the opportunity of having cheap, reliable long term storage of energy in the form of wood, ethanol, biofuel or possibly fossil fuels.

Thus batteries and steam engines complement each other.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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