Steam train

What is the steam engine for?

What is the steam engine for?

The applications of the steam engine have been changing over time. However, the most common throughout history have been:

  • Industrial

  • Marine transport.

  • Railway transport.

  • Water pumping (Newcomen engine)

  • Generation of electricity.

Initially, since the early 18th century, steam engines have been used to power many uses. In the beginning, the steam engine was used as a piston pump.

Later, from the 1780s, reciprocating engines began to appear. Initially, factories and industries used this type of external combustion engine. Later, steam engines began to be used in transportation.

How does a steam machine work?

A steam engine is an external combustion engine that transforms the thermal energy of a quantity of water into mechanical energy. This work cycle is carried out in two stages:

We can generate steam by heating in a hermetically sealed boiler, which causes the expansion of the volume of a cylinder by pushing a piston. The reciprocating linear movement of the cylinder piston is transformed into a rotational motion that drives, for example, the wheels of a locomotive or the rotor of an electric generator.

Once the piston reached the end of the stroke, the plunger returns to its initial position and expels the water vapor using the kinetic energy of a flywheel.

Some inlet and outlet valves control the pressurized steam. These elements regulate the renewal of load, and steam flows through the cylinder.

Industrial applications of the steam engine

The main uses of the steam engine in the industrial sector are:

  • Steam-powered machinery.

  • Water pumping stations.

  • Merchandise transport.

The first to use steam to get a mechanical job was Thomas Newcomen. Later, James Watt improved the Newcomen engine so that it did not depend on atmospheric pressure. Watt and Matthew Boulton created a company to commercialize it.

Importance in the industrial revolution

James Watt's steam engine became one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was a process of economic evolution and industrialization of society. This evolution occurred thanks to the help of machines powered by mechanical energy, especially windmills and hydraulic wheels. The appearance of the steam engine was a significant technological advance.

In transportation, locomotives, ships, and other land vehicles used the power of steam frequently. 

This technology had great importance in its use in the field of agriculture. Its use meant the possibility of increasing the available farmland.

Although compound engines improved steam engine efficiency, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the importance of this type of engine has dropped dramatically. The reason was the appearance of the internal combustion engine and the electric motor with many more advantages.

Water pumping stations

In 1698, Thomas Savery built the first steam engine. He invented it to pump water from the mines.

Savery's machine consisted of a boiler and two large oval tanks, in each of which water and cooling steam were introduced alternately. The vacuum produced by the condensation of the vapor aspirated the water of the mine. The subsequent introduction of steam expelled the water from the tank and allowed the cycle to be repeated.

The steam engine in transport

With the design of James Watt's steam engine, the first reciprocating piston engines appeared. The industry used these engines massively. Also, they were used in transportation, particularly steamboats and steam locomotive engines.

The first time that steam engine was used in transport was in the 19th century. Its presence was a spectacular advance for the economy and society.

Initially, it was only used for maritime transport. However, the railway soon adopted this technology.

Richard Trevithick was the inventor of the first locomotive engine. George Stephenson built the first public railway line to use steam locomotives (Stockton-Darlington, 1825).

Today, there is still one steam locomotive operating in the United States. It is the Union Pacific 844. For the most part, though, the U.S. and the rest of the world have converted to electric and diesel.

What was the success of steam cars?

The steam locomotives and heavy steam engines were functioning normally since the nineteenth century, but their weight limited practical applications in light vehicles.

The car steam and internal combustion grew at the same time. In the early years, steam engines had the advantage of advances made to steam locomotives. Around 1900 steam cars performed better than internal combustion cars: they were unbeatable on the climbs and were the first to beat the records of 100 km / h to 200 km / h.

However, starting in 1920, the internal combustion engine had progressed so much that automobiles could drive themselves.

How is electricity generated with a steam engine?

One of the most widely used applications of the steam engine today is the production of electricity. Current technology makes it possible to convert thermal energy into electrical energy.

The vast majority of thermal power plants in the world work boiling water to get steam to drive steam turbines. Those turbines are connected to an electrical generator to obtain electrical energy.

The difference between these different types of power plants is the heat source. The thermal source that heats the water to steam can:

  • Fossil fuels (coal, oil, or natural gas)

  • Uranium (nuclear power plants)

  • Solar energy (solar thermal power plants)

Publication Date: November 27, 2017
Last Revision: April 19, 2021