/ 30 July 2008

Steam-powered car aims at 1906 speed record

Front on, the vehicle could be mistaken for a sports car; from the rear, it looks like something out of a low-budget science-fiction show, all jutting Thunderbirds fins. But the side view is the crucial one: a puzzling mishmash of tubes and wires and water tanks.

This is Inspiration, a steam-powered car built in the United Kingdom and believed by its designers to be capable of smashing the oldest land-speed record.

In August, on the Bonneville salt flats of Utah in the United States, superheated steam will rush through the car’s tubing and propel the vehicle at 282km/h, a speed that would smash the steam-car record of 206km/h established more than a century ago.

The project has fallen behind schedule and, at the unveiling of Inspiration in June, plans to fire up the engine were shelved following a bent valve earlier in the week. So the team pushed the vehicle into position on a military runway in Hampshire, where the final test runs will happen before the car crosses the Atlantic.

In an army tent, engineer Matt Candy explained how Inspiration works. Liquid petroleum gas is used to raise steam in the 7m-long car. The gas is set alight using an ordinary car ignition system — and that valve pinched from a camping stove. A wall of flame at a temperature of more than 1 000 degrees Celsius is created and used to heat a ton of water. The water passes through the car’s tubes and turns into superheated steam. The steam, at 400 degrees Celsius, hits a turbine and turns a shaft, which makes the wheels go round. You could, apparently, make 23 cups of tea a second with that sort of heat.

In Utah it will take 4,8km to get this hurtling kettle up to top speed. The car will then travel at about 274km/h for a measured mile before being allowed to grind to a halt over another 4,8km.

Because the record requires two runs, the team will turn Inspiration round, get her all steamed up again and do another 11km. The average speed of the runs is what counts.

Steam cars used to be quite the thing. In 1906 Fred Marriott, an American, drove one that reached 205,4km/h) Then the internal combustion engines took over and today jet-powered monsters dominate the land-speed record books. Marriott’s achievement remains the longest-standing land-speed record recognised by the Federation International de l’Automobile.

But Candy insisted steam could have a future. “I’m not saying we’re all going to be driving steam cars, but the technology could have other uses,” he said.

The team has been in talks with firefighting experts, as steam can have uses in tackling blazes. Candy also wonders whether steam might have a use in aircraft technology as the search for greener fuels intensifies.

The Inspiration team certainly has speed aristocracy on its side. Its test driver is Don Wales, the nephew of Donald Campbell and grandson of Malcolm Campbell, who between them set more than 20 speed records on land and water.

“This project has all of the things that make us Brits great,” said Wales.

“It has the quirkiness of a homespun project but it also has serious engineering. My grandfather and uncle, hopefully, would be proud and impressed that we are trying to keep up the family tradition of breaking records and keeping records in Britain, which was their main goal in life.” —