Steam Meet Report

Here are 7 videos from the steam meet, plus other conslusions on our involvement with steam power. We will build a hydronic heating stove with allowance for a steam engine electrical generator – even if we don’t install the steam engine before winter.

Tom’s working museum collection has a large selection of engines, cars, and parts. and it has an extensive library of books, manuals, manuscripts, and patents on steam. It is also a workshop, where he can build boilers, restore cars, and build steam engines. Many of them can be run on the spot by using compressed air instead of steam. Here is a sample of a few engines – from small boat to car-sized in the 100 hp range, running on compressed air:

Steam Engines – Part 1 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

Tom pointed out a particular engine which he thought was what we need at Factor e Farm – a 3 or so horsepower engine. I personally liked one that was made almost completely with off-the-shelf parts – a double-acting uniflow engine where his valve was a hydraulic valve running off a cam on the main shaft:

Steam for FeF – Part 2 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

Here is the infamous Green Steam Engine – the one that is touted as an ‘efficient, modern steam engine’ by its inventor. I was excited about it at first, but then found out that it has no proven performance record. Tom once wrote a lengthy paper on the flaws of this design, which I will ask to reprint – as people keep asking us about the engine after hearing the ‘efficient, modern steam engine’ claim:

Green Steam Engine – Part 4 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

This is one of the points that I learned: just about anything has been tried with steam, and those who attempt to reinvent the steam engine find out that all of their brilliant ideas are already found in 100-year old patents after doing further research – in 99.9% of the cases. So, for me it’s simple – just tap the talent of the SACA crowd, and build the advanced, modern engine with it. A couple of members are doing this, and some have proposed a modern steam car – but there is no modern steam engine power unit yet because that takes a long time to develop and test. This is where I see the potential of open source steam power – first in documenting the technical prior art as embodied in the work of many SACA members – and integrating that into an effective design. While there is continued debate on the details of what works and what doesn’t, there is general consensus on underlying principles. Ands everywhere, almost all SACA people are working either on their own projects, and many playing with their toys without greater aspirations – but there is also a couple of people interested in ‘saving the world.’

There were several steam-powered motorcycles at the meet. Did you know that the first motorcycle ever (1800s) was powered by steam? They did not have gasoline engines at the time when people were ready to motorize bicycles. It worked, and apparently there was quite a few of these in operation. This tells you that steam engine systems can be quite small. One guy is firing his with corn.

There was one very interesting steam motorbike here – with fully electronic steam injection. One could thus control the cutoff ratio (length of steam injection) completely, for optimizing engine efficiency under varying load. 800 rpm was the operating condition – at 600 PSI and 600F. The track record for the valves is only 16 hours so far.

Steam Motor Bikes – Part 6 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

Moving on to flash steam generation, here are some examples. Tom also has a tubing bender for making steam generator coils:

Flash Steam Generators – Part 5 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

Tom mentioned that a generator consisting of 5 pancakes like those shown in the video (105 feet of 1/2” Schedule 40 black pipe), at 1000 Fahrenheit/1000 PSI of a high-performance steam generator – produces enough steam for a 100 hp engine.

Now here’s an interesting one – Tom’s wood fired car. You throw in some wood into this fire-breather – and you are off. What a sight:

Wood Car – Part 3 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

Here are some other mobiles zooming all over the place, and one going through town:

Steam Car Rides – Part 7 from Marcin Jakubowski on Vimeo.

Apparently, all noteworthy steam cars and engines that you may have heard about end up in Tom’s collection. He does a lot of field research, visiting with as many people in the field of steam power as possible, and collecting all types of information and samples.

While Tom’s car is quite a freak, we can actually make a biomass-fired dragon into quite a practical, convenient, and modern car. I discussed biomass pelletizers with Geroge Knight from Canada, who is considering building a pelletizer, and who has achieved some mastery with simple, automatic pellet burners. Take an automatic pellet burner, add a high efficiency uniflow engine, and you have a modern car fired readily by local biomass. If switchgrass produces 11 tons of dry biomass per acre – doesn’t that indicate that solid biomass fuel is a practical fuel option for cars, and that it could provide a significant portion of fuel needs, and completely power the tropics? Biomass – grass or wood – is abundant, especially in the tropics. I’ve heard Bob Edwards, one of the members, say that one acre in his Tennessee woodlot is sufficient if he wanted to power a steam car.

I could even picture going cross country with a pellet-fired steamer – with a rooftop solar wood dryer and “regenerative braking” powering an on-board hammermill/pelletizer. So to make it across this country on a road trip, you bring your chainsaw, and you don’t have to stop at gas stations!

Marcus from Lynx Steam is the fellow interested in a mass-produced, affordable, combined heat and power (CHP) steam engine. He brought a biomass monotube steam generator connected to this experimental rotary engine (see link). The concept is right – and it’s a proven, robust electrical production option if one uses a standard steam engine. He is currently working on a steam engine with an injection-molded, high temperature plastic – for low-cost production. His target is the entire engine, a radial uniflow engine, about 1 hp, for under $100 when mass-produced.

As far as the outcome on evaluating the feasibility of a combined heat and power stove – the results are positive. In fact, there was one SACA member whose father ran a steam engine to generate electricity, hot water, and space heating. The question for us is whether we will have the time to build a decent steam engine. The question is not whether it will work – as the SACA crowd has already built hundreds of working engines – and they can provide review. The question is simply time.

It appears that the $1700, 10 hp engine from Tinytech Plants is not worth buying – because it will require just enough messing with it that making your own (now with SACA assistance) should not be much more difficult. While Tinytech Plants is an off-shelf product, I don’t have any references to verify performance – though I was informed that Sustainable Village just purchased Tinytech’s 2 hp engine – so we should follow up with them. I am not convinced that it is self-starting under the conditions of unattended longwood stove operation like we’re proposing.

We will do a stove, simply because our comfort depends on it – running a central stove instead of 2 or more separate stoves. We will use about 150 feet of 1” black iron pipe connected with fittings, to generate 1/2 kW of of electricity and 100 kW of heat for distribution. It turns out that black iron pipe, with fittings, tightened down hard, with anti-seize compound in the joint – will give a long-lasting heat exchanger that will not leak at the joints – capable of generating steam at temperatures of 350F and pressures of 150 psi. We will make ready allowance for adding a steam engine to go with it. For now, we will build the stove and hydronic heating system, simply by adding baseboard heating to the housing units. If we have additional people appear in the winter, we can move one of our modular solar cubicles closer to the stove, and run hydronic heat into them. Thus, one stove covers space heating for all living quarters. We will press bricks for the stove and its building next week.

Regarding the heat exchanger on the stove, here is the design for a monotube (single, long tube) proposed:


Water enters the top of the heat exchanger, and exits at the bottom. The steam separation chamber is used to separate steam and control the water level in the steam generator. If you don’t control the water level, you will be spitting water out of the exhaust.

In 200 years, nobody has figured out how to control a monotube boiler under varying load conditions. It is simply a combination of the small amount of water in the entire steam generator at any single time, and the fact that the steam generator pipe has significant thermal energy stored in it. One can’t just cool it/heat it within a fraction of a second, as demanded, for example, in city driving.

On other concluding comments – I am trying to understand why steam has never gained higher popularity. Someone mentioned in a talk that if only 1% of the entire ICE budget went to developing steam power, we would now have the option of driving with steam. Tom’s conclusion is that it is a simple infrastructure and education issue – simply, the modern transportation infrastructure is not set up to handle steam. The reason for the absence of steam is political choices, not its technical feasibility. As far as I know, there is complete consensus within SACA that steam is could be a maintenance-free means of mobile propulsion. Note also that steam locomotives were common, and that most of our modern electrical power comes from steam turbines fired by coal, and that there was a number of steam vehicles on the roads at the beginning of the 20th century.

To sum up the 2-day adventure – next year, we are considering taking a cross country trip to follow up with some of the SACA members throughout the States. During the visits, we would build components. We would plan on returning propelled by steam power. On a more immediate note, here is a proposed steam hydraulic hybrid of 250 Watt electrical production that we are currently reviewing for feasibiliity. Please comment.


  1. mimarob

    Hm, looked at the construction, seems like a plan. Smart to use such a low rpm on the cylinder and then put a hydralic “gearbox” on it.

    I guess you mean “ci” and not “cu” for the volume
    (2*A*l = 2*r^2*l*pi = 2*2*2*8*pi ~= 200 cubic inches? )

    Later on, why did the pressure change from 300 psi to 150 psi when going from gas to equivalent hydraulic flow?

  2. Nick

    I wish I could have been there! In the second video the 3D cam is a brilliant way to vary cutoff ratio, I think down the road that would be a canidate for a solar power steam engine because of the wide adaptability to varying steam temperatures.

    The off the shelf hydraulic steam engine was awesome too, weren’t we thinking along those lines? You’re right pretty much everything has been tried with steam engines.

    I personally believe that when it comes to harnessing biomass power the steam engine may be the ultimate winner, especially when redressed with some modern controls. ICs are just a product of our short lived fossil fuel decadence.

    The trouble though is efficiency, at best we could hope for 20% efficiency using a pelletized powered steam engine. However even if we were to convert the biomass to synthetic fuel and run in a more efficient fossil fuel engine the overall cycle efficiency probably would not exceed this due to refining losses, not to mention having to support a more complex piece of technology. Anyways way to keep the steam dream burning!


    PS I am making machine shop enquiries in hopes of starting a steam engine project soon.

  3. Jeb

    Wow! What a blast, thanks for all the details. I’m planning to base a boiler design on the twisted burn chamber of for more complete combustion though. Easy to build it with bricks, some Cobb, a barrel and stove pipes. Here is an example of a water heater model thermo-siphon using copper coil heat exchanger (not exposed to direct flame). Can’t use copper with pressurized steam though, but I’m also thinking about eliminating all danger of bursting and freezing by heating used motor oil (or biodiesel?) in the thermo-siphon setup instead. Could then use the hot oil for various heat exchange operations, including steam pre-heat or flashed refrigerant to drive an engine or small turbine like a salvaged power steering pump.

    The last, and most exciting optimization I’ve thought of is to modify the fuel feed area to also accept wood chips or pellets that starve the fire enough to partially burn and create mixed woodgas. This can then be drawn via the intake of an ICE through a cleaning and heat storage area, to run a generator or power cube. Part of that power could then be used to compress additional woodgas for future use, and maybe even collect the “exhaust” air of the ICE as a first stage to make a duel stage compressor (stored energy as compressed air), with bonus distilled water to bleed off the bottom of the compressor tank.

    How many more ways can we collect energy off an initial solid fuel burn? Oh yes, further design the initial burn chamber to drop and collect bio-char in a barrel instead of ash — much more useful soil enhancement, and direct method to help balance C02 emissions.

  4. Abe

    Awesome stuff and ideas. I do wonder on the overall ease of use and efficiency of a steam engine for CHP from biomass. Why not use woodgas to ICE? That would be off the shelf engines and parts, no machining, and safer to run than steam. It is also very efficient, much higher conversion than home-made steam from biomass. Am I missing something?

    If, however, you want to convert another form of heat, like solar, then you need something else, not an ICE. But steam may not be the best answer for this, either. You might need to consider an organic Rankine system to take advantage of lower temps better than steam, and then no need for super high temps and pressures. Anyway, just some ideas.

  5. Marcin

    Right. If one is interested in a minimal, multiurpose set and the choice is between steam and IC, we favor IC. FeF is an experiment on what minimal technology set can lead to modern prosperity and post-scarcity. If we find that our results with steam engines are not delivering the required performance and simplicity, we will move on to other options.

  6. mimarob

    woodgas.. It has been done!

    That old Volvo is simply beautiful, but then I’m not objective 😉

    They spent 7 cubic meters for a 5420 km long journey, that is 2 miles to the gallon, so bring a trailer 🙂

  7. Myles Twete

    I have been a member of SACA for some 18 years and early on suggested to SACA members that it seemed feasible to build a vehicle that literally could eat its way down the road—onboard pelletizer, pellet-fired boiler and steam engine. I never went far with this idea, but it’s good to hear someone else doesn’t think the idea too crazy.
    I do have to caution you on a couple things:
    (1) the comment that SACA members seem unanimous in believing steam can be a maintenance free power solution—as someone who’s seen many different approaches to steam engines, boilers, burners, etc., I have yet to see a maintenance free design. Even steam power plants require maintenance.
    (2) energy efficiency: sure, you can build a pelletizer and sure, a portable one could be conceived of, built and put into a vehicle, but its operation is not free—it will consume a percentage of the energy you intend to liberate from igniting the resultant biomass.

    Other than that, great website and chronicle of the 2009 SACA meet—wish I were there as it’s been 3 years or so for me.
    -Myles Twete

  8. Marcin

    Myles – on your Point (1) – I’ve yet to see a maintenance free steam power unit as well. It’s possible – but has not been done because there is no organized and funded effort out there to develop such a unit. We’re in the age of the internal combustion engine.

    History shown that a maintenance-free unit is feasible. The Yuba tractor, by Yuba Manufacturing Co. of California – featured a dashboard essentially with a key for turning the tractor on, a gas pedal, and steering wheel. Everything else was ‘under the hood.’ This showed that it looked no different to the operator than any other tractor. This was one of the design specifications, and this was achieved in their prototype. This shows me that a maintenance-free vehicle is feasible. You can find this publication in the SACA library, and I should ask the president if I can republish this. This opened my eyes to the feasibility of a simple steam power unit – and it’s been done in 1951.

    Automatic controls and other automation make the steam power unit a more attractive option than it was in 1951. Given the availability of electronic controls, it should be feasible to produce steam cars much more easily than at the beginning of the 20th century. Maybe we’ll have hundreds of different car manufactures sprout up again in the near future – as has been the case 100 years ago.

  9. Myles Twete

    Marcin- I like optimism, yet optimism doesn’t solve hard technical problems. And there’s a big difference between providing a simple User Interface vs making something maintenance free. Your Yuba Tractor example cited merely sounds like a simple User Interface with a level of automatic control. If that’s your criteria for simplicity and low maintenance, that’s a low bar that has already been crossed many times with steam. Take as a modern steam example, Chuk Williams’ T-Model. He turns a switch, warms the engine up, and within a minute is ready to drive down the road. And while there’s a level of automatic control in place and more could be added so it is nearly fully automatic, it is not a maintenance free system. I totally disagree with your assertion that history shows that a maintenance-free unit is feasible. Low maintenance, sure. But unless you are building a non-contacting or minimal-contacting hot air engine, steam power solutions require maintenance. All burners I’ve seen eventually need maintenance, even natural gas or propane burners. Boilers require proper treatment (i.e. maintenance) or they will not last, requiring replacement (i.e. maintenance). Steam engines last a long time and can indeed be minimal maintenance, but eventually, sometimes very quickly, rod bearings begin to knock, piston rings leak and valves become misadjusted.
    All in all, we can agree that there are certainly reliable, low maintenance solutions that are feasible to do what you’d like to do. So go do it.
    I have some great pics and video of testing of improvements on a pellet burner that might be of interest.

  10. Marcin

    Myles, your comments are well-taken. I think we both agree that a low-maintenance unit is feasible – to the point that it can be adopted by large numbers of people – and not just crazy tinkerers.

  11. cezar

    The point of CHP is to get extra electricity without much more maintenance (or fuel) above what is already necessary for normal gas or wood central heating systems

    A small steam turbine might do that anywhere ~4-5% efficiency can be considered usefull.

  12. […] have already showed you a similar concept in a blog post last year – from last year’s Steam Automobile Club of America meeting. This was a steam bicycle with […]

  13. Kevin

    Have you considered rocket stoves as the source of heat for the steam engines?

  14. Tom Kimmel

    October 28, 2011 This is in answer to the several questions and suggestions about rocket stoves, gasifiers, solar, and organic fluids instead of water. First of all steam makes sense if one is burning wood because most people off the grid are already burning wood for heat and have wood processing ability. Therefore a rocket stove is a good idea because it uses large pieces of wood. The least amount of energy going into the fuel the better. Any stove that burns clean, which means burns the smoke with secondary combustion air is good. Secondly, a gasifier works if the goal is to produce char which is pure carbon and then to grind it up and incorporate it into the soil. This is a lot of materials handling. Also the gasifier produces heat that is rejected and not used for anything useful. Thirdly, water is always the best. Organic fluids are not a good idea and it would take a long time to explain why. Many good people have looked into it. Solar is very good and steam is the most practical way to use solar. Then the power unit can be used the rest of the day burning bio fuels. Tom Kimmel