Many people believe steampunk is the brainchild of two well-known authors of the late 1800s, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Verne’s book, "From the Earth to the Moon," published in 1865, depicted submarines, solar sails and a rocketlike projectile that transported people to the moon. Although these inventions seemed improbable for many years, several of the contraptions he penned have been incarnated in modern machines. Steam has experienced a similar revival. It’s far from being a defunct energy source, a timeworn literary construct or a remnant of the Industrial Revolution.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 45 percent of the fuel burned by U.S. manufacturers creates steam, and most of the electricity in the U.S. is created by steam turbines. A basic steam turbine uses fuel to heat a boiler that converts water to steam. A compressor then condenses the steam into a high-pressure mass that's transferred to a spinning turbine, where it generates electricity to power factories, homes or even vehicles. Steam-powered vehicles are still in development, but when compared with gas-fueled vehicles, they're expected to be more energy-efficient and have fewer environmentally harmful emissions.
Before steam power can take a quantum leap, however, scientists need to overcome a major efficiency issue. Current steam generators don’t capture all the steam that’s produced -- a large percentage of it (up to two-thirds) is lost. Some steam simply escapes into the atmosphere, while some cools and is recaptured as wastewater. While the wastewater is often recycled right back into the steam generator, it would be more efficient to capture it in the first place, which is exactly what researchers are attempting to do by developing highly efficient steam turbines.
One of the distinct advantages of steam power is that nearly any type of fuel can be burned to turn water into steam. Instead of burning fossil fuels to make steam, scientists contend that combustible organic waste materials, like corncobs or soy oil, could be used. Steam turbines could even be heated using waste wood. The Seattle Steam Company, for example, burns used wood pallets, broken tree limbs and construction scraps to produce enough steam to heat 200 downtown Seattle buildings.
Water is a nonhazardous, inexpensive and plentiful natural resource that can generate up to 6 times its mass in steam, which means it holds promise as a cleaner energy with widespread industrial and residential applications. Even if none of those applications is a steam-powered rocket that can catapult an impeccably dressed human into space -- yet.