The U.S. Army is developing high tech steam engines that can run on biofuels, and not just for show. The steam engines, manufactured by Florida-based Cyclone Power Technologies, Inc, will be used in combat vehicles including the Arbrams M1 Main Battle Tank. That might not be quite what notorious steam engine fan Jay Leno had in mind when he started advocating for a steam power renaissance, but the Army’s interest in steam is part of a full-on push by the Department of Defense to untangle itself from its dependency on fossil fuels and reduce its contribution to global warming emissions.
Steam Power for Combat Vehicles
The new Cyclone engines are being developed under a $1.4 million contract with the Army’s Tank Automotive Command. They are too small for powering a tank’s drive train – they’re designed as compact, 10kw auxiliary units – but they will save fuel by powering the vehicle’s systems when it is stationary, rather than running the main engines on idle. In addition to cutting down on pollution, noise, and fossil fuel consumption, the Cyclone will help save a few shekels for the Department of Defense by reducing wear and tear on the main engines. Cyclone Power Technologies won the contract in August to build a prototype with its licensee Advent Power Systems, and it has just announced that it has acquired Advent to streamline its eligibility for the next phase of the project.
The Cyclone Steam Engine
Cyclone’s engine is based on Rankine cycle (aka Schoell cycle) external combustion technology. It runs by heating and cooling water in a closed system, and because the combustion chamber is on the outside, it can run on just about any kind of fuel, even solar power. In a recently published steam engine white paper, Cyclone Board of Advisors member (and retired Lockheed engineer) James D. Crank explains:
“The Schoell cycle steam engine offers massive starting torque, eliminating the need for a transmission in most cases. The combustion system already eliminates carbon particle emissions and virtually all NOx, as well as the other usual pollutants seen with any fuel burning IC [internal combustion] engine. The engine can provide true carbon neutral exhaust when burning pure bio algae and plant fuel oils, which it can do without any modifications to the combustion system or the other components. In past tests, the Schoell cycle has burned over a dozen different fuels without any engine modifications, sometimes using a mixture of different fuels…”
The Next Step for Alternative Fuels and the Department of Defense
Crank is careful to explain that much more testing is needed to get down to the nitty-gritty of how the engine performs in real world conditions, so a steam powered tank attack is way off in the future. In the meantime, all five branches of the armed services are pushing forward with other alternative energy projects. To name just a few, last year’s Indy 500 showcased a new Army diesel-electric vehicle, and the Army is also tricking out Abrams tanks with fuel cells to cut down on fossil fuel consumption. Not to be outdone, the Marines’ new biofuel engine is also based on external combustion technology, the Air Force’s camelina biofuel is performing brilliantly in demonstrations, the Coast Guard is getting under way with a biodiesel study, and the Navy is developing an entire Green Fleet that can run on bio-just-about-anything, including chicken fat.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.