Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.


Hitting the books. Doing my job. Took a nap when I got home, and read about freak locomotives. A technology is never maximized until it is obsolete. There is no incentive to maximize something until something better is either on the horizon or upon you. Its the reason so many governments end up with the epitaph “to little to late” post revolution. And its the reason for locomotives of unspeakable complexity.
The last of the steamers were competing with Diesels. Now, steam engines (the real ones, not the ones in labs) run whats called a Rankine cycle, and diesels run a Diesel cycle. The maximum theoretical efficiency of the Rankine cycle is a good deal higher than the the MTE of the Diesel cycle. But theres a catch (isn’t there always?): Diesels can run at temperatures significantly higher than the metal they are built of will bear because all that “waste” heat goes out in the exhaust. In a well made steam plant, nearly every BTU of heat that goes in can go to driving the machinery but to do so it must pass THRU boiler. Getting metal to keep its shape at 1200 degrees is hard enough. Getting to do so while holding thousands of pounds of pressurized water is a good deal harder. Besides as any tea drinker knows, boiling water leaves behind scale. The more scale the less heat gets into the water and the more just heats the pipe. If the pressurized water can’t keep the pipe cool (and by cool I mean NOT incandescent), the pipe will burst.
And that is much worse than you can possible imagine. If you have 1000 gallons of water all superheated to say 1000 psi, when a single pipe breaks the pressure on ALL of it goes to zero. Which means all 1000 gallons instantly turns into steam. (That is it expands 1200 times.) Now, in case this is unclear, there is name for a 1000 lbs of explosive surrounded by layers shredable steel. Its called a BOMB.
So the engineers developed a system of having water in one pipe warm water in an other. Its called a pressure water system (or a Schmidt System if you are big rail geek, like me) and its still used in nuclear power plants. But it was to little to late for the steam locos. Diesels over took them.
Why does this keep me up at night? Because the engineers never saw it coming. The diesel engineers weren’t trying to revolutionize transportation, they were just doing the best they could to develop a cool new technology. The steam engineers weren’t being stodgy on purpose. They looked at the emerging technology and decided that steam was (1.) Simpler, (2.) Cheaper to make, (3.) Cheaper to fix, (4.) Cheaper to fuel. They were right on all counts. But in the end they were wrong. It makes me think about a lot of things. I wonder if car technology is dieing yet. Is it getting complicated in the face of competition from something better, or is it at the phase where the manufactures can build about anything and people will buy it. I suspect the later. I’ve mentioned before, fuel cells and electric cars aren’t what they are cracked up to be. If a car takes 100 HP to cruise down the road and makes that 100 HP at 100% efficiency against a car that needs 20 HP and makes it a 25% efficiency, the 20 HP one actually pollutes less to get the same cargo the same distance. (A true real world example of this is a Geo Metro [50MPG vs. fuel cell powered GMC Suburban [42MPG])
And what about non technical ideas? 1000 years ago we KNEW the world wasn’t spherical. 500 years ago we knew the sun was the center of the universe. 100 years ago we knew malaria was caused by cold drafts. 50 years ago we knew computers took up whole rooms. 5 years ago we knew the war would be over in a few months. What did I believe yesterday? What ideas will I try to patch together in a desperate attempt to improve them in the face of a system of thought or belief which simply works better? Like, I said, it keeps me up.

April 10, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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