How Steam Technology Works

To see the enormous strength of steam, you do not have to search further than witnessing the eruption of geysers or the explosion of gasses that occurs when lava mix with oceans. Man has witnessed such sights and for long tried to control the crude power of steam using technology ranging from the tea kettle to the modern nuclear power plant. Regardless of the level of technology involved, steam power comes down to one basic principle: When water is heated to point of vaporization, the vaporized water occupies more space than the liquid water.

This is because solids, liquids and gases are each binded together by different strength of intermolecular forces. In solids,the molecules are compacted together. In liquids, they have more spaces apart. And in gases,such as steam, they are further apart. If a can of soup is heated on fire, the contents will turn to vapour and later expand ,making the can explode to let out the pressure within.If this pressure is taken to perform work,such as making a turbine turn or a kettle to whistle,we can say that steam technology is utilizing steam power.

The ways of heating, holding, controlling and utilizing steam have changed immensely, but the basics are still the same. Learning to utilize the power of steam is an age long process. Greek mathematician Hero propounded theories about the use of steam technology in the first century. Although, it was over 1,600 years before the first practical steam engine was invented to evacuate water from mines and gardens. The golden age of steam technology helped transformed the chart of history piggy-backing the Industrial Revolution, altering the global shipping industry and enhancing modern day warfare.

Early Steam Backstory
The oldest account of steam technology can be linked to Alexandria in 75AD . It was there that the mathematician Hero, also known as "Heros" or "Heron," authored three books on mechanics and the properties of air and came up with plans for a simplified steam engine.

Hero's design included a hollow sphere with bent tubes coming out from both sides of it. The mechanism was filled with water and hung above a fire. As the heated water within the sphere vaporizes,steam is made to pass through both tubes. The steam power makes the sphere rotate,like a wheel made to turn by bottle rockets.
Hero's means for converting steam power to motion was the basis for subsequent steam technology. A huge amount of scientific developments were needed before the ideas behind his steam turbine could be used practically. Eventhough individuals like Leonardo da Vinci meddled with the idea of steam power (he proposed in 1495 that steam power could propel a projectile), further developments in engineering and highly precise measurements of temperature and time assisted the onncoming age of steam.
In 1606, Giovanni Battista della Porta of Naples recorded his theories on the use of steam in creating a vacuum. He formulated that if water is transformed into steam within a closed container,it results to increased or higher pressure, steam condensed to water within a closed chamber will result in decreased or lower pressure. This new details about steam played a big role in later future developments.
In 1679, French scientist and mathematics professor Denis Papin managed to transform della Porta's theory into reality using an amazing home project, known as the Digester or Engine for Softening Bones. A sealed cooking pot was actually the foremost pressure cooker. Papin improved on this device by including a sliding piston at the top of a sealed cylinder full of water. When heated, the expanding steam pushes the piston upwards. As the steam cooled down and becomes liquid again, the resulting vacuum pulls the piston back down in place.

Steam Weapons

As steam power started dominating oceans and waterways, steam-powered weapons became more popular. British experts experimented on steam-powered anti-aircraft weapon known as the Holman Projector during World War Two, but found it to be less accurate. Compressed steam was employed in some early torpedo tubes to launch a self-propelled torpedo from a vessel.
Steam is employed today to launch planes from the floors of aircraft carriers. The floor mounted catapult, powered by built-up, high-pressure steam,flings an aircraft off the ship and into the air.

The Foremost Steam Engines
Late 17th century, England faced a timber problem as shipbuilding and firewood consumed forests. The ships were important for trade and defense, but coal was a good alternative for firewood, producing more coal required digging deeper coal mines, which increases the probability of water entering the mines. There was an urgent need for alternative means of moving water out of mines.
In 1698, Thomas Savery, a military engineer, registered a patent for a steam pump and started talking to his Miner's Friend to anyone who listens. The device included a boiling chamber that directs steam into another container where a pipe having a non-return valve enters into the water that needs to be pumped out. Cold water was poured over the container of steam and as the water vapor inside cools to liquid state, the resulting vacuum draws up water from below. The sucked-up water is not able to flow back through the non-return valve and is then carried away through another pipe.
Unfortunately for Savery, the steam pump didn't achieve much success in the mining industry he had hoped for. Majority of his sales were to private estates that wanted to move away excess water and use it for home and garden purposes. Since the steam chamber's heating and cooling is to be controlled manually, the engine could not deliver higher power. The engine could only bring up water from a limited depth , a deep mine needed a number of engines positioned at different heights.
However, in 1712 a blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and assistant John Calley, a glassblower and plumber, invented a more powerful steam-powered pump system. The Newcomen Engine combined Savery's separation of the boiler and steam cylinder with Papin's steam-driven piston.
While Savery pursued to replacement of old horse-driven pumps with his engine, Newcomen pursued using a steam powered pump to work as horses do. Newcomen's engine was very similar to Savery's. It was fitted with a steam-filled chamber that was cooled by a fast injection of cold water to create a vacuum-inducing change in atmospheric pressure.Now the force of the vacuum pulls a piston down and pulls a chain that actuates a pump on both ends of a suspended beam. When the water in the piston cylinder turns to steam again, it pushes the piston up and a weight on the other side of the beam resets the pump.
The Newcomen engine was a major achievement and was used in numerous mines around Britain and abroad. The engine works at a slow pace, the cost of  operating it was cheaper than a stable of horses. Engineers started to experiment with the Newcomen Engine,by improving the cylinders, valves and fuel efficiency of the steam pump. The advent of stronger iron made the engine lasts longer. Smelters later discovered they need not  have to work next to rivers, as the Newcomen Engine could be employed instead of water wheels to fire up furnace bellows.

Watt and the Steam Engine
The Newcomen Engine and Savery's "Miner's Friend" definitely used steam technology, recent steam engine is generally accredited to the work of James Watt.
Trained as an instrument maker in London, Watt later got employed close to Glasgow University in Scotland. When one of the University's numerous Newcomen Engines required repairs, Watt got involved in the inner workings of steam devices technology. Watt soon discovered a design flaw: Time,steam and fuel were wasted unnecessarily by having both heating and cooling take place in the cylinder of the piston.
Watt solved the problem by making a separate condenser. He included a separate chamber from the cylinder which was insulated,where steam could be cooled to create a vacuum. This separation paved way for the piston cylinder to remain at the same temperature as the incoming steam with no energy wasted heating it and the water within. In addition, the separate condenser can be kept at a lower temperature and needed little or no cooling.
After collaborating with Matthew Boulton, Watt produced a faster and more fuel-efficient engine employing the separate condenser. The pair's efforts to find new applications for their highly successful engine resulted to two more important inventions - the double-acting engine and the fly-ball governor.
The fly-ball governor brought about automatic opening and closing of steam valves to a piston. Sun and planet gear were fixed to a shaft driven by a wheel. As steam power made the rod to spin, the two balls spun outward from the shaft. When they attained their highest point, they made the steam valve to close. As their spinning slowed, they spun back toward the rod and made the valve to open once more. This converted  motion in the steam engine from back and forth (reciprocating motion ) into the circular motion need to make a wheel move.
This double-acting engine made the steam engine highly efficient by utilizing the power of the once idle steam to push down pistons.

The Cornish Engine
James Watt's inventions set the center stage for the on coming Industrial Revolution. Commencing with the textile industry in the late 18th century. Wool had long been processed manually and later with the aid of water mills. A lot of new innovations brought steam power to factories.
The Boulton and Watt engine was highly successful but other innovators were determined on advancing the technology. Mean while, Boulton and Watt wielded control over the steam engine trade as their engine was covered by stringent patents.
Patent royalty dues cost mining companies a huge amount of funds. An innovator named Richard Trevithick observed the problems of the mines in his town Cornwall and started to develop an engine that by-passed Boulton and Watt's patents. Trevithick thought he could possibly develop an engine that will do away with Watt's separate condenser by employing high-pressured steam.
While the use of high-pressured steam had been explained theoretical, it had not been implemented practically. 18th century steam boilers were not able to withstand high pressure for long intervals of time. Just at the commencement of the 19th century,as Watt's patents was about to expire,Trevithick found out that modern boilers could withstand higher pressures. At the same time,an american innovator Oliver Evans discovered the same thing.
Trevithick's Cornish Engine was less expensive, lighter in weight than the Boulton and Watt engine. Arthur Woolf went further by improving the use of high-pressured steam in 1804. The London brewery engineer realized the idea of compounding -- a method where excess steam from one piston is used to fire a second piston and then a third. This method results in less heat loss
Trevithick's new Cornish Engine was cheaper, lighter and smaller than the Boulton and Watt engine. Arthur Woolf further improved the use of high-pressure steam in 1804. A London brewery engineer came up with the idea of compounding ,a process where excess steam from one piston is employed to power a second piston and a third. This process leads to reduced heat loss.

The Steam Locomotive
Innovators started work on designs for steam-powered cars even when work on the foremost steam pumps were been completed in the late 1600s. Some people believe Ferdinand Verbiest invented a working steam car in 1672, more facts points out that the French innovator Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot invented the foremost steam-powered vehicle in 1769. Even when research and development of steam-powered cars continued for some time, the concept was highly successful for rail-mounted steam locomotive.
The individual at the forefront of the Cornish Engine, Richard Trevithick, was also a main figure in the innovation of the steam locomotive. It is good to know that train tracks were already in existence in the 1770s in several industrial places in EnglandIron-reinforced wooden rails known as tramway were already built for horses to pull carts of coal. In 1804, Trevithick came up with a steam-powered engine able to haul 10 tons of iron for 10 miles. In 1808, Trevithick's Portable Steam Engine was unveiled on a circular track in  London.
A British engineer, George Stephenson, started two decades later from where Trevithick stopped. Stephenson's effort in making highly efficient steam engines for transporting coal brought up the idea of building a rail link between Durham coalfields and a shipping port in Stockton. Stephenson said that it could also allow the engines to ferry passengers. In 1825, Stephenson conducted experiments on Locomotive No. 1 on its historic voyage,ferrying cargo and an estimated number of 600 passengers.
As the development of steam cars remained a scientific curiosity for the next 100 years, the steam-powered locomotive started work. The engine was powered by a collection of wheels rotated by a steam-driven piston. Engineers worked tirelessly to advance the system by multiplying steam pressure, applying compounding and adding more wheels. 
The railway showed to be a main stay in the ­Industrial Revolution, altering the manner in which cargo was moved through land and connecting distant populations together. Steam powered the railways until diesel engines and electrical power came to limelight in the 20th century.

The Steamship
As steam power altered the spate of land transportation with the innovation of the locomotive, it was also the main source of power on rivers and seas,taking over from manual oars and sails. The earlier innovation of steamships is in parallel with that of the steam locomotives and the steam engine. In later 1600s,  Denis Papin, innovator of the steam piston and pressure cooker,propounded theories on the use of steam powered impellers to power boats.
Only in 1763, when Jonathan Hull was given the foremost steamship patent for a tug boat for port usage that employed Savory's Engine to power a water wheel. Unfortunately for Hull, both Savory's Engine and the Newcomen engine were not able to deliver enough horsepower. Only after James Watt's achievements on steam technology that foremost steamboats became possible.
British and French innovators,together with steam locomotive pioneer Richard Trevithick worked on the idea but developed sluggish and difficult to operate vessels.During the same period, Robert Fulton was able to test a prototype steam boat for river use. In 1807, he unveiled the Clermont- a paddle-wheel boat that was able to transport passengers and cargo several miles up and down stream. The success filtered into Europe,in 1812,a British engineer named William Symington unveiled the Charlotte Dundas, the earliest successful steam-power driven passenger boat.
As for ocean voyages, ships fitted with sails were fiitted with additional steam power for use when wind power was not enough. One of such is the Savannah,which was the foremost steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic in 1819.
Steam power was quick to take over from sails. By 1815, over 40 steam vessels were operating from Liverpool. By 1826, businessmen connected to the sail industry went as far as sending a petition to the government for intervention to protect their business. Steam power took over naval transportation till the emergence of diesel-powered engines in the other half of the 20th century.

The Steam Turbine
In the 1830s,a British scientist known as Michael Faraday developed an electric generator known as dynamo. Other innovators soon started to refine a process by which a steam engine could produce rotary motion needed to generate electricity. They observed that there was a limit to the amount of revolutions per minute a steam powered piston could produce. The solution to this problem was discovered, ironically in the  technology proposed by Hero in 75 A.D - the steam turbine.

Whereas Hero's steam turbine proposed that jets of steam to come out from the perimeter of the object to be rotated, early 19th century engineers proposed projecting jets of steam onto blades fitted to the perimeter of a wheel. Then, steel was not strong enough to withstand the stress of rapid rotation. In 1884,a British engineer named Charles Algernon Parsons applied the latest steel technology to use. He produced a turbine able to use compounded steam that turned a dynamo at 18,000 revolutions a minute. In 1890, his steam turbine and coupled with an electric generator were installed in the Forth Banks power station. The technology later became common in Europe. 

Parsons also adapted his steam turbine technology for naval purposes, unveiling his vessel, Turbinia, at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Parsons was later commissioned to fit a Royal Navy destroyer with a turbine engine.

The Drawbacks of Steam

With high pressures and temperatures of steam engines, it is not out of place that explosive incidents have hindered the technology's development. For this reason, boilers from simple pressure cookers to power plants are fitted with some sort of safety valve. When the pressure inside the boiler becomes too high, excess steam is let out from the valve to avert an explosion. These devises are normally weight or spring powered and need a certain level of pressure to open the valve. Although, accidents still happen.

Explosions resulting from deliberately or accidental deactivation of safety valves were not common in the 19th century. The bad publicity from those incidents was a challenge to steam pioneers and inventors of the day. One of the more well known steam-related accidents of the 20th century happened at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. The accident started when pumps supplying cool water to the steam generators stopped functioning, causing increased steam pressure. This activated the plant's release valve, but when the valve did not to close, the reactor core overheated.

Modern Steam Turbines

The steam turbine is still a major part in electrical power generation around the world. Even nuclear power plants use the heat  produced from a controlled nuclear chain reaction to generate the required steam. In the United States,nearly over 88 percent of all electrical power is generated by steam turbines.

As said earlier, there are three basic states of matter: Solid, liquid and gas. Each state is binded together by  different strengths of molecular forces. Steam occupies more space because its molecules are furthest apart. If enough pressure is applied to the steam, an interesting scene unfolds. The molecules are pushed together to the point that the steam becoming liquid water again,still having the properties of a gas. At this point that it is known as a supercritical fluid.

A lot of power plants use supercritical steam, having pressure and temperature at the critical point. This infers that supercritical steam power plants operate at higher temperatures and pressures than other plants using subcritical steam. Water is normally heated to very a high pressure that boiling does not take place.

The following high-pressured fluid of supercritical steam delivers higher energy efficiency. With the aid of high pressure, supercritical steam turbines can be driven to very high speeds with the same amount of heat energy as normal steam power. They also emit lesser CO2 exhaust into the atmosphere. In-addition, recent high-pressure boilers built with rocket technology are being developed to provide extra control over the amount of CO2 emitted. Certain boilers even cool down the steam back to liquid and direct it into the ground to collect emissions.
The future is promising for steam for other uses as well. In the search for alternative automobile fuel systems, Certain scientists continue to push for the 15th century idea of a car driven by steam power.

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