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Motorhead Memo: Full steam ahead

By Kip Woodring

Motorhead-web

A conversation between several individuals overheard at a Harley shop in the year 2018… maybe.

Twinker: Yeah, the old bike’s in for repairs. Clutch and transmission are roached! About $1,200 worth. I guess if you’re gonna have motorcycles, you’re gonna have clutch and transmission issues!

“That’s not quite true.” (It was Mac’s voice.)

Twinker: Are you saying motorcycles don’t need clutches and transmissions?

Mac: Some don’t. First off, there’s the LiveWire, and then there’s that new steam-driven model—it’s called “Punk”—just came out this year.

Twinker: Why don’t they need them?

Mac: Internal combustion engines, even Big Twins, require transmissions and clutches because at low speeds the engines don’t generate enough torque to turn the drivetrain. The transmission gears the engine’s power down until the mechanism comes up to cruising speed. A steam engine, or an electric motor, generates high torque at all speeds, so they don’t need a transmission and clutch between the engine and drivetrain. In fact, in most cases, they’d just be in the way. So there’s no clutch or transmission to repair or to waste gas.

Twinker: Waste gas?

Mac: About 40 percent of any regular gas engine’s energy is lost through the drivetrain. Only about 10 percent is lost through the drivetrain in a steam or electric bike.

Twinker: You’re kidding!

Mac: Nope… and there are plenty of other advantages. For instance, the new steam bike has an engine about the same size as the one in your old Twin Cam, but it’s lighter—which saves fuel. They’re also less complicated—meaning they’re cheaper to repair. They don’t need mufflers because the burning takes place at standard air pressure—as external combustion—so there’s really no exhaust noise, which is what the muffler was designed to muffle. Also, steam engines don’t need any kind of smog controls. The LiveWire hasn’t got any kind of combustion goin’ on, so it’s quiet and smog-free too.

Twinker: So, no tranny or clutch, no muffler, no noise and no pollution? How’s that possible?

Mac: Look, the pollutants caused by the internal combustion engine are the result of high-pressure, hurried and incomplete burning of the fuel. In a steam engine, it’s possible to have 100-percent combustion, and electric models simply don’t burn fuel. Fact is, steam engines don’t need gasoline either. This new one can burn kerosene, fuel oil, paint thinner, alcohol—pretty much anything that’ll burn.

Twinker: Then why aren’t we hearing more about the steam bike? Everyone’s talking about the LiveWire replacing what we’ve got now, but this steam business sure seems to be off the radar.

Mac (smiling): They’ve been talking about bringing back electric vehicles for decades. They said they were going to be part of our future… the breakthroughs to make ’em economically feasible were just around the corner. Most of the problems were with the batteries, same as back at the turn of the 20th century! Batteries are expensive, heavy, short lived, short ranged, and they need long periods to recharge. Sure, there have been improvements, but more incremental than innovative. As much as I like the LiveWire, for instance, I still can’t ride one to Sturgis! On the other hand, steam bikes, like this new one, could put steam-driven vehicles back on the map, as well as the roads, and make us forget the electric stuff… even hybrids.

Twinker: Are you saying we should abandon the electric stuff?

Mac: Did you hear me say that? We should do all the research we can, but what worries me is the elusive battery breakthrough at the expense of other, more workable ideas to compete with gasoline engines! Well, that, and what happens to the nation’s coal-fired power grid if everybody has to plug in their electric vehicles every night! Makes it doubly important that we shouldn’t ignore another workable solution.

One of several 21st Century designs and not your grandfather’s steam engine… HEAT PROCESS 1. Fuel is atomized and injected into the centrifugal combustion chamber where a spark ignites the fuel-air mixture that spins around the heat coils. Thermocouples (not pictured) control the duration of combustion to keep the heat in the combustion chamber constant. 2. Water contained in the coils becomes super-heated steam in a few seconds from startup, which is (a) piped to the cylinders (b) where it enters through a valve system with timing mechanisms to regulate how much steam enters the cylinders—the longer the cutoff, the greater the torque and acceleration. MECHANICAL PROCESS 3. Steam enters the six radial-configured cylinders under pressures up to 3200 psi to push the pistons down in sequence. No motor oil is used—water is both the working fluid and engine lubricant and the engine starts without the need of a starter motor. 4. The rotating action of the pistons connected through a spider bearing (not pictured) that turns the crank shaft, which can be directly connected to a drive train without a transmission. COOLING PROCESS 5. Steam escapes the cylinders through exhaust ports and (a) enters the condensing unit where it turns back into water, and (b) collects in a sealed pan at the bottom of the condenser… a closed-loop system so water does not need to be replaced or topped off. 6. Blowers spin fresh air around the condenser to speed the cooling process. REGENERATIVE PROCESS 7. (a) Air which has been pre-heated from the condensing unit (b) continues up to a second exchanger in the exhaust port of the combustion chamber, further pre-heating the air used for combustion while also cooling the exhaust fumes. 8. A high-pressure pump (not pictured) pipes water from the collecting pan to heat coils (a) via heat exchangers surrounding each of the cylinders (only one pictured), and then (b) to the center of the coils to start the cycle again.

One of several 21st Century designs and not your grandfather’s steam engine…
Heat Process
1. Fuel is atomized and injected into the centrifugal combustion chamber where a spark ignites the fuel-air mixture that spins around the heat coils. Thermocouples (not pictured) control the duration of combustion to keep the heat in the combustion chamber constant.
2. Water contained in the coils becomes super-heated steam in a few seconds from startup, which is (a) piped to the cylinders (b) where it enters through a valve system with timing mechanisms to regulate how much steam enters the cylinders—the longer the cutoff, the greater the torque and acceleration.
Mechanical Process
3. Steam enters the six radial-configured cylinders under pressures up to 3200 psi to push the pistons down in sequence. No motor oil is used—water is both the working fluid and engine lubricant and the engine starts without the need of a starter motor.
4. The rotating action of the pistons connected through a spider bearing (not pictured) that turns the crank shaft, which can be directly connected to a drive train without a transmission.
Cooling Process
5. Steam escapes the cylinders through exhaust ports and (a) enters the condensing unit where it turns back into water, and (b) collects in a sealed pan at the bottom of the condenser… a closed-loop system so water does not need to be replaced or topped off.
6. Blowers spin fresh air around the condenser to speed the cooling process.
Regenerative Process
7. (a) Air which has been pre-heated from the condensing unit (b) continues up to a second exchanger in the exhaust port of the combustion chamber, further pre-heating the air used for combustion while also cooling the exhaust fumes.
8. A high-pressure pump (not pictured) pipes water from the collecting pan to heat coils (a) via heat exchangers surrounding each of the cylinders (only one pictured), and then (b) to the center of the coils to start the cycle again.

 

Twinker: Then why’s everybody looking at electric stuff and hybrids to replace… (waving his arm at his motorcycle) that?

Mac: “Everybody”… isn’t! It’s not the public that’s in love with them; it’s really any entity with turf to protect or an angle on making a buck or sewing up a monopoly.

Twinker: I’ve seen polls that say the public wants them.

Mac: Sure, they want the vehicles promised in the polling questions. They’d want a motorcycle that runs on peanut butter—if you somehow persuaded them that it would let them use it the way they use a “regular” motorcycle! The poll I’d like to see is how people would feel about giving up their gasoline power, when all they’d get in return is what the electric “people” have delivered so far—or even what they’re likely to deliver in the foreseeable future.

Twinker: Well… they’re not buying steam-powered stuff, either.

Mac: Nobody’s offered ’em, not even on paper… till now. Let’s be clear here; the pure electric vehicle has no foreseeable chance of winning against the gas one in the marketplace. I’m including so-called hybrids in the gas class too, because, let’s be honest, they are a breed of “cheater” with ability to travel the vast distances we have in this country, but not on electricity. Sadly, pure electric cars are only attractive because of HOV use!

But with the modern technology version of a steam engine, a competitive vehicle can be created—like Harley’s new one! If other companies had put half the effort into developing steam-powered vehicles as they have into electric ones, we’d have been driving steam bikes 20 years ago!

Twinker: Do you really believe that crap?

Mac: Bet your butt I do! Steam can match or beat the gasoline engine on its own terms—cost, weight, durability, performance, range, maintainability and ease of refueling and they’re pollution free!

Twinker: Huh? I thought steam engines were an old concept that gasoline engines replaced.

Mac: They were pushed off the market by the gasoline engine for a couple of obsolete reasons. First… warm-up time. Old Stanley Steamers could take 20 minutes or so to build steam, but today it’s more like 10 seconds. The other innovation was the electric starter. Before that came along, gas cars were dangerous to start. No steam car company back in the day was the size of Ford or GM, so steamers were essentially forced out. Henry Ford had more to do with the fact that we drive gas-powered vehicles than any merit we can ascribe to their engine. Truth is, they were just better marketed. Steam power caught hold in mass transportation big time—railroads and ships—but when it came to “personal” transportation by machine, naturally “the powers that be” tried to suppress it.

Twinker: What?… suppress how?

The 330 hp version you can hold in your lap… almost!

The 330 hp version you can hold in your lap… almost!

 

Mac: “Established” industries saw a looming threat to their businesses… horse-drawn carriages, the horse industry in general, shipping and the railroads all realized automobiles and motorcycles would cut into their profits. They used their influence to see that legislation was passed to stifle the growth of the steam-carriage trade. For instance, in Britain, the best roads were the toll roads. The toll for a horse-drawn carriage was three pennies, but the toll for steam-driven vehicles £5. So, 400 times as much for a steam-driven car as it was for any horse-drawn carriage! Parliament also passed the Red Flag Acts, which made it unlawful for steam vehicles to be driven without a crew, including a flagman who had to walk ahead of the vehicle. The steam automobile industry folded! I wonder what would have happened had the British encouraged the growth of an automobile industry—instead of destroying it. They would have perfected the steam engine for personal transportation 60 years earlier, and become the first major player in automobiles… not to mention motorcycles… but the steam engine was perfected too late and the internal combustion engine leaped ahead of it.

Twinker: So why didn’t the British public try to stop stupid laws?

Mac: The public didn’t know that it wanted it.

Twinker: Well, when did that finally occur to them?

Mac: The invention that created a favorable impression for the automobile in the public mind was the bicycle. Before the bicycle, people were content to think of mechanical transportation as a collective thing, like a ship or train. Suddenly, the bicycle introduced the wonders of independent, individual, travel. People today don’t realize what an incredible difference the bicycle made, let alone that it’s the common ancestor of both the motorcycle and the car!

Leon Serpollet developed a steam engine made strictly for an automobile and by 1890, it was the best over-the-road vehicle that existed. In 1902, his car set the land-speed record at over 75 mph. By 1906, the steamers built by the Stanley brothers in America had gone 127 mph, and a year later almost 200 mph! Steamers set records that took gas engines several years to match. It seemed like the car of the future, but it foundered because it hadn’t occurred to anyone to mass produce them. Then along came Henry Ford.

Twinker: Why isn’t anybody trying to market a steam-driven car right now?

Mac: Money and market share; simple as that. The 21st century steam engine works better than the conventional automobile engine, and makes more sense in the long run, but who has the pockets and persistence to prove it? Not the conventional car companies, that’s for sure! In fact, 30-some years ago, when smog reared its ugly head, Congress scheduled hearings concerning the viability of the steam engine. The auto giants shot it down! The oil companies also don’t want to see them. They don’t want to risk the capital investment they have in gasoline production. Battery manufacturers don’t want to see it happen because they expect to cash in on the battery bonanza if anything ever comes of electric cars. The environmentalists don’t want to see it because the electric car is the trendy, emotional issue for them. Politicians aren’t willing to back it because the only people who will really benefit from it are the public at large, and politicians do not derive their power and campaign funds from the average citizen; they get it from the special interests.

Mac: That’s about right. So the best real-world possibilities of reintroducing the public to the use of steam is by having it power other products… like generators. Oh, yeah, and motorcycles!

Twinker: What kind of future is there for steam motorcycles if steam cars have an uphill battle ahead of ’em?

SM: My guess is, if and when there are a few out there and people can see how well they work, then everyone will wonder why it wasn’t brought back earlier.

Twinker: So, you really think the steam bike has a future against gas and electric stuff? What about boilers blowing up and needing water all the time and things like that?

SM: You’re thinking 100 years ago! That’s the biggest problem— old, false perceptions! Look, you can travel farther today on five gallons of water in a steamer boiler than you can on 10 gallons of gas in a regular engine. There’s no “range anxiety” like with pure electrics or even most hybrids. Condenser technology is such that most of the water used to make the steam is reclaimed and reused, and there are even steam engines out there that use fluids other than water to improve on any kind of waste in that regard. Boilers made of materials that weren’t even conceived of in steam power’s heyday, like Titanium, using insulated, sandwich construction inner and outer walls, would handle intense pressures easily. Modern electronics control any cold start and/or warm-up issues so the new steam motorcycle is ready to go before you can put on your helmet and gloves. Oh… and they do go! All that torque, way more than gas engines can make size for size, is available right away so the only real limits to acceleration are weight and tire traction. No time wasted shifting either, remember?

Twinker: OK. Dang it… you’ve got me all steamed up! Think they’d take an old-fashioned gas bike in trade, even with a broken tranny and clutch?

Mac: Showroom is up front, old buddy!

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