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Earth Sense: Steam still plays vital energy role
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Steam engines are something you’re used to seeing in museums like the Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village in Tifton. Steam used to power cotton gins, tractors and trains.

My own grandfather told stories about his decades of driving steam trains before World War II.  

“Inside the engineer’s cabin, temperature was in the 90s,” he said. “Outside, it was freezing. The forward-looking window was covered in soot, so you had to stick your head out the side to see. Seventy degrees difference wasn’t conducive to good health.”

Steam is a gas made from heating water. At high temperatures, it expands with great force. Routed into the cylinders of the old locomotives, it drove pistons and turned the wheels via connecting rods.

Only tourist trains still use those. But steam isn’t gone from our lives. Nuclear power plants don’t produce electricity “from atoms.” They are steam plants.

Fuel rods inside the reactor core heat a jacket of water, producing steam. The steam makes a turbine rotate. Working like a huge dynamo in principle, the system then generates electric power. It’s similar to the alternator in a car.

A special type of solar plant uses steam for power generation. The Ivanpah focused-array plant in California, 5 miles from the Nevada state line, is particularly impressive. Three groups of reflectors, totaling 300,000 mirrors, each send bundled sunlight onto a generator tower.

Inside each tower there’s a steam turbine, using the same dynamo method to produce electricity as coal and nuclear plants do. Ivanpah supplies an average of 140,000 homes with 377 megawatts of power. You can see the plant from I-15 South.

The Solyndra Plant in San Luis Obispo Co. in California is even bigger, designed for 550 megawatts. That’s twice the output of Fontana Dam in North Carolina. But financial mismanagement and legal issues have hampered its operation.

Nevertheless, solar plus steam is a step forward from the nearby Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, built in close proximity to the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault.

Nuclear reactors on a seashore in an earthquake zone are risky, as we learned in 2011. After an earthquake produced a tsunami in Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi plant flooded and released dangerous levels of radiation.

The power of steam is most beneficial in solar plants, with no risk of radioactive leaks, and zero carbon emitted into the environment.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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