Mention “steam-powered” and most people immediately think of old locomotives: the massive “iron horses” that whistled across the plains and mountains of the world a hundred years ago and more. The words may also bring to mind any one of a dozen examples from the emerging “steampunk” genre, where devices that run on oil or electricity today are instead, somehow, built of brass and powered by pressurized steam (often in a world more than a little reminiscent of Victorian England). But the era of steam isn’t over! Steam boilers and their kin still play their part in a tremendous variety of applications, from mining to food processing to general manufacturing to, yes, power generation. Several large multinational companies, such as the California-based Clayton Industries, make their sales entirely through the manufacture and design of steam-generating and steam-controlling devices.
The reason steam has remained such a useful and reliable means of both generating and distributing power is, first, that it’s fairly easy to make. All that’s needed is water and something to burn: wood, coal, natural gas, and oil are typical favorites. Second, the resulting steam can be easily piped wherever it might be wanted without the need for anything more complex than a metal tube. It has its dangers, of course– early steam engines had a disconcerting habit of rupturing and killing bystanders with jets of superheated gas– but in the more than a century since its development the use of steam has proven to be one of humanity’s most reliable technologies. In fact, your home might be heated by steam and the electricity that powers the computer you’re using right now might be provided by steam: a device known as a “supercritical steam generator” is often used for that exact purpose. Even nuclear power plants are really nothing more than steam generators which happen to use nuclear fission as a heat source!