When we think of steam power, do late nineteenth century trains come to mind? The industrial, steam-powered gadgets of sci-fi fantasy movies like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Hiyao Miyazaki’s Steamboy may also have honorable mentions here. However, steam power is far beyond the world of leather buckled corsets or the retro chic world of George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. What I am talking about is real power. Steam is essentially heat that can be converted to energy and power engines. Steam power had its heyday in the nineteenth century when inventors found creative ways to harness this power in steam engines, being used in mostly trains. Unfortunately, steam engines required heat which meant a large team of workers constantly shoveling coal into the furnace to keep the engine running.
If we want to propel steam energy into the 21st century, we need to unplug from the past and even fantasy. We can dream about the steampunk world that the futurists helped craft with their flighty rhetoric about being born again from factory sludge, or we can talk about real possibilities for steam power in today’s world. We are unequivocally beyond coal. We know that it is going out the door in terms of cost, sustainability, and even fashion. However, we are left with a vital question: What does steam power look like in 2016 and the upcoming years?
First of all, steam engines of the future would not let out clouds of smoke that we often imagine from turn-of-the-century locomotives. Instead, steam energy will produce little to no harmful emissions, have a high thermal efficiency, require a small team to operate (or even just one man), and will also be light in weight. These engines would not use coal as we have done in the past, but instead use biomass or low-sulphur coal. Secondly, to integrate these new fuel sources, the structure and technology of the engine need to be altered significantly. This will, like wind energy, require the teamwork of brilliant minds passionate about innovations and change. By approaching steam energy with open minds, we will see amazing changes in the world of steam energy.