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Simplicity in Steam

April 7, 2011

It is an idea that, on first contact, seems like a crazy, wacky attempt at “green tech.”

However, once you think about it, the benefits of the idea begin to come to light.

The idea I’m talking about is the Solar Steam Train concept. Basically, it involves running fireless steam locomotives off steam generated by the sun.

Before you wonder where I left my tinfoil hat, let me explain that there is a lot of story behind the idea of “sun puffers.”

The development of steam technology in the application of rail transport didn’t end with the construction of the last steam locomotive for a major railroad in North America in 1949. An engineer named L. D. Porta continued improving steam locomotive efficiency and theory up until his death in 2003. The efficiencies he was able to achieve with standard steam locomotive technology were amazing, having several times improved the efficiency of the thermodynamic system beyond the theoretical limits. In the 1970s, during the first oil crisis, he helped develop plans for a modern steam locomotive running on coal that would look like a diesel locomotive of the day, called the ACE 3000. The project failed due to a lack of funding, but he continued to develop his ideas on other projects that came to fruition in other countries around the world.

ACE 3000 drawing by Gil Reid, from the Ultimate Steam Page.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, and enter DLM AG. Continuing the development of modern steam technology, DLM successfully sold a series of brand-new steam locomotives to several cog railways around Europe. These locomotives out-performed the diesel locomotives they replaced in all economic respects, and featured light-oil firing that reduced their environmental impact over the comparatively dirty diesels. Conversions to light-oil fuel have become DLM’s specialty in recent years, but recently they purchased two fireless locomotives to refurbish and modernize, and presented them to the public in 2010.

DLM Fireless Locos at their unveiling, from DLM's website. Notice the solar panels on the cab roofs.

Fireless locomotives operate without an internal heat source, with the normal boiler being replaced with a vessel that stores pre-generated steam. They are, in simplest terms, thermos bottles on wheels. They usually operated around mills and factories that had surplus steam on hand from stationary boilers in the plant. Many industries preferred fireless locomotives, for both product quality and safety reasons, like linen mills, canneries, and gunpowder factories. Several factories in Germany are still home to fireless locomotives, and there have been rumblings here in the United States about refurbishing old fireless locomotives for factories with sources of steam.

The fireless loco technology is the simplest application of steam technology to rail locomotion, with a minimum of maintenance required and simple operation. There is no way a driver can damage a fireless loco, other than wrecking it, whereas there are a myraid of things that can go wrong with a normal steam locomotive, up to and including boiler explosions. The charging process takes only a matter of minutes. There are far fewer parts than goes into the modern diesel-electric locomotive, with none of the extensive manufacturing wakes that electronic components usually have. The embodied energy of a fireless locomotive, even a modernized one, would be far less than that of any other propulsion type.

Solar steam technology is simple as well. Some of the earliest large-scale solar power plants operated not with photovoltaics but with mirrors that focused sunlight onto a central point, to either directly generate steam or heat a metallic mixture that transferred its heat elsewhere to generate steam.

It becomes not very hard to imagine the solar steam railroad landscape, with fireless locomotives built with modern insulation stopping every 100 miles to recharge their accumulators. The solar steam plants dot the landscape, with modern versions of railroad windmills to pump the water to the station to be heated. Backup steam power when the sun doesn’t shine comes from underground liquid metal thermal storage in rural areas. In cities, backup steam power comes from co-generation plants that supply heating, cooling, and electricity to neighborhoods and streetcars.

Today, too many of our energy systems operate independently of one another, leading to massive waste and huge carbon footprints for those who live with centralized power networks. The idea of solar steam trains simplifies everything down to a level of unified processes, generating a world where the direct connections between energy and work are apparent to everyone.

On a daily basis the chuffing in the distance and the lonesome call of the whistle that signals the arrival of far-off places to wherever the tracks lead, and stirs the wanderlust deep in the soul, would once again be heard.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 10, 2014 5:47 am

    What an amazing article! Thank you so much! I have started a (still tiny) Facebook page on Solar Powered Steam Engines and I posted your article there. Do you think there’s a chance of such a rail network as you describe? (Or even limited shipping??? eg in the St. Lawrence Seaway where it would be relatively easy to have replenishing stations every so often.)

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