Tuesday 16th May 2006


Can steam-power supplant the petrol engine?

Inspiration: steam car
Inspiration: steam car
The British Steam Car Challenge project, which plans to establish steam powered vehicle speed records on three continents, is working on a revised engine installation which will necessarily delay completion of the car, called Inspiration.

Recent boiler and dynamometer tests revealed a small problem with boiler efficiency in the steam turbine-powered machine. Resolving this has, in turn, resulted in a problem packaging the drivetrain within the current body design. A revised installation is being devised that does not adversely affect the aerodynamic performance of Inspiration or its power output – both factors critical to reaching the projected top speed of more than 200mph.

However, the project team is conscious that 2006 is the anniversary of the current land speed record for a steam powered car – held by Fred Marriott, driving a Stanley Steamer, and established in 1906.

Project manager Frank Swanston said: “Unfortunately, setbacks are inevitable with such a technically complex project as this. We are still working as hard as ever to complete the car this year and attempt the records.”

What is the Steam Car Challenge?

The British Steam Car Challenge was conceived with the aim both of breaking the land speed record for steam powered vehicles and creating excitement in the arena of alternate fuels. The organisers hope that the project will generate interest among the next generation of engineers and designers to work toward cleaner and safer forms of transportation, both public and private.

The first mention of a steam powered vehicle will usually conjure images of ancient tiller steered motor cars and pre-war rail engines. It was during the early nineteen hundreds that the petrol engine gained dominance in the personal transportation marketplace. Many ascribe this shift to market and business pressures rather than technological advancements or lack thereof. A big argument for this shift is the dominance of the steam turbine in the power generation sector of the economy.

While not exactly new in concept, steam-powered vehicles have potential that today’s internal combustion engines lack. The compact size and robust power density figures make internal combustion engines attractive, but their drawbacks also stem from their popularity, according to the steam enthusiasts. It relies on highly refined hydrocarbon based fuels, while the external combustion engine isn't fuel-specific, so any fuel can be used, including the cleanest fuel, direct sunlight.

Leading edge technologies have been employed to make the record attempt possible, according to the project leaders. The development phase includes over 18 months of proof-of-concept and research work on the steam generation and power delivery systems.

The team and supporters hope to bring another land speed record to Britain. The car is being designed and constructed in the UK, and the first of two record attempts will be made in the UK.

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