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Will Steam Powered Automobiles Make A Comeback?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Will Steam Powered Automobiles Make A Comeback?

Levi Quinn
August 14, 2010

Levi Quinn

Man has used steam as a source of power for many years now. It was used to fuel locomotives and ships across the world for decades. The next obvious step would be to try and develop a steam-powered automobile that could be used on a daily basis.

A car that is fuelled and powered by a steam engine is not out of the question as some prototypes have already been made. Steam-powered agricultural and haulage vehicles are in use now, but are very heavy in weight. Steam cars were actually developed and produced at a steady rate in the early 1900s as steam was the major source of power for trains at the time and the knowledge to run an engine was already in place.

That knowledge actually gave the steam car an advantage over a conventional gas car and in 1900 steam cars were considered to be superior and held various speed records on land for automobiles. However, by the time 1920 rolled around, the gas-powered car had taken over in quality and popularity.

One of the major problems with steam cars is its boiler. The boiler makes up most of the full mass of the drive train of the car, and this adds greatly to the overall weight of the vehicle. Another boiler-related problem is the fact that the driver would somehow have to make sure it has a continuous supply of water to replenish the boiler. This means the water has to be carried or the auto would have to have a condenser built into it. But this would just add more weight as well as inconvenience.

At the time, a steam automobile did have some benefits to it. The engine itself, without the boiler, was lighter and smaller than a gas engine. It was also more suited to the torque and speed characteristics of the axle. This meant it did not require a complex and heavy transmission system like the gas car. Steam cars also ran quieter than gas models, even without some form of muffler system.

The major difference between the two types of cars is that a steam engine uses an external combustion engine, where fuel is combusted outwards from the motor. The gas car uses the internal combustion engine, which means the fuel is actually combusted within the engine. One of the benefits of an external engine is that it produces lower emissions of carbon monoxide, oxides, nitrogen, as well as unburned carbon. This makes it a lot better for the environment when it comes to less pollution.

However, steam cars were harder to start and took a while to warm up. When the electric starter was introduced it basically meant the end for external combustion engines when it came to cars. But the internal combustion engine was not really superior when it came to fuel economy, range, and performance.

Steam cars have not completely fallen by the wayside and some projects have been worked on since the 1970s. They are still made and driven, though mainly by hobbyists and steam car enthusiasts. In August of 1999, a steam car was able to reach an average speed of 148.308 mph. While steam cars are still a possibility for future use, the feeling of most researchers is that the time of the cars has come and gone.

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