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Is there a future for steam-powered, super-efficient cars?

How will steam engines be used?

Steam-powered engines will have to overcome a lot of obstacles to win public approval, such as a common misconception that steam engines tend to explode (debunked by a number of sources, including the Web site Hybrid Cars). Others worry that it would take too long for the engine to build up the requisite amount of steam to drive from a cold start, but Cyclone reports a time of 10 to 15 seconds for start-up, and full power in less than a minute. That’s less time than a diesel engine requires to warm up.

Another point in favor of the steam-powered engine is its aforementioned fuel flexibility. When automobiles were first being manufactured, no one was thinking about running out of fossil fuels. These days, however, our dependence on fossil fuels is cause for concern among many, and any alternatives that allow us to lessen that dependence are starting to look very appealing.

Which leads to another question: how do steam-powered cars stack up against hybrids and electric vehicles? Hybrid and electric models certainly represent a step in the right direction toward resource conservation, but by no means will they free us from our independence on fossil fuels. Current hybrids use a combination of gas and electric power to run; these cars use less gasoline than standard internal combustion vehicles, but they still require it. They also produce fewer emissions, yet some remain. And electric cars, as pointed out here, often use electricity generated by coal or other fossil fuels, meaning that carbon emissions are still a part of the big picture.

In the case of the Cyclone steam engine, emissions are less of a concern (though by no means entirely gone). According to the company’s Web site, the engine burns longer than most and therefore incinerates more particles, which means less exhaust. And, that exhaust is dependent on the type of fuel used. If we can develop fuel sources that have increasingly less impact on the environment, the steam-powered engine’s carbon footprint would get even smaller.

Of course, all of this is entirely academic until car manufacturers actually decide to put steam engines in their vehicles and other machines, but it seems they’re starting to bite. Popular Science reports that Cyclone Power has reached an agreement to develop engines for lawn mowers and garden equipment, and in April 2011, according to Smart Planet, Cyclone made a deal with mega-firm Raytheon, a defense contractor with ties to the United States Military. Flexible fuel options could make a big difference for deployed troops that are away from any reliable supplies.

Only time will tell if the steam-powered engine actually makes an impact on the consumer automotive market. If it turns out to be the same price or less to manufacture on a large scale than traditional internal combustion engines, the steam-powered engine might be embraced by auto makers, and possible future oil crises could force us to seriously reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Today's steam engines are far superior to yesterday's models, so don’t count them out for widespread use tomorrow.