A live-steam N-scale engine--my dream!

Pete Nolan Jun 7, 2005

  1. Pete Nolan

    Pete Nolan TrainBoard Supporter

    Could micro-technologies make a live steam N-scale steamer technically and economically feasible?

    A national lab has already demonstrated a working steam engine that you can see only under a microscope, and that can be produced, thousands at a time, on a silicon wafer using ordinary silicon manufacturing techniques. It vaporizes water and produces a measurable output.

    So I dream. Could this technology be scaled up from the micro world to the mesa-world, i.e., one or two (or more) magnitudes of order? It would still be very small--about the size of specks of dust.

    An alternate approach would be to take thousands of these micro-machines, and synchronize them into one bigger machine.

    The "coal or oil" needed to power these machines is abundantly plentiful from the rails--12 VDC at even one amp would be like drinking from a fire hose. So the tender could hold nothing but water--real water, though it would have to be incredible pure.

    So we have a working steam engine, whether it's one, or a few, or a thousand micro-components working together with one purpose--to create energy.

    How do we use this energy? Do we try further micro-engineering to create real cylinders, with micro-valves? It's been done at a microscale, but now we're needing it on a much larger scale. A purist would insist, but here we get into even newer applications of micro-, mesa- and minature technology. Possible? Probably. Economical? Probably not.

    Could we be satisfied with using steam to power a micro-generator? Probably not--why not use the electricity from the rails to directly drive an electric motors, which is what we do now. Today's scheme would be more efficient, I think.

    This is where my dream bums out. I dream that I can create the steam in a package small enough to live in an N-scale boiler, with more than enough space for weight. That is, much less space than today's motors and drive-trains. But I can't figure out how to transfer that energy to a drivetrain, either by prototypical or other means.

    Any ideas?
  2. beast5420

    beast5420 TrainBoard Member

    that is a wild idea, but you'd be talking about a massively expensive deal there. friction would be an enormous devourer of power at that scale. everything would have to be surface finished like nobodys business, also, with that small amount of metal, you'd have to worry about melting stuff down or blowing a hole around your fire..... cool idea, but i think the practical limits would make it extraordinarily expensive....
  3. Tony Burzio

    Tony Burzio TrainBoard Supporter

    How would you check the sight glass? :D

    Tony Burzio
    San Diego, CA
  4. Pete Nolan

    Pete Nolan TrainBoard Supporter


    Friction at the microscale is a lot different than at any other scale--the effects are still being studied. It could be significantly more--or significantly less. I don't just know. Tribology, as its known, is one of those weird sciences.


    With a strong magnifier!
  5. John Moore

    John Moore TrainBoard Supporter

    My wife figured I went around the bend some years back when I carved small wall urinals out of plastic stock for my old time movie theatre restroom on the 2nd floor. Then somebody suggested the small blue cakes to go in them, and I produced same. Thats when she reserved me the room in the local institution. Working N scale steam? Heck I would be happy with smoke, and not from a burning motor. Looks like I'll have a room mate soon. :D :D
  6. sd90ns

    sd90ns TrainBoard Member

    If I’m not mistaken the nano-motors you are referring to are a type of gas not steam turbine. Water molecules would be far too large to work and unless superheated would cause all sorts of problems.

    Two things you have to remember about building small. You can’t shrink molecules and volume does not scale. If it did, our 33,000 gallon tank cars would hold upwards of 206 actual gallons.

    What this means for a steam piston N-Scale locomotive is the ratio of the volume of each cylinder in N-Scale to the rest of the locomotive is far smaller than the same ratio of the real thing.

    If you really want to see how bad things get when you try to scale volume. Take the displacement of a single cylinder of the EMD 645E diesel engine.

    If you “Scale” it. That is divide 645 cubic inches by 160 you would have a displacement of apx. 4ci. Obviously that can’t be correct.

    In order to get the correct cylinder displacement of an N-Scale 645E you would first need to divide both the bore (9.1”) and stroke (10”) by 160.

    This would give you a bore of .057” apx. And a stroke of .0625” . Now, too get the displacement of your N-Scale cylinder. Multiply Pi by the square of the radius of the bore and multiply by the stroke. 3.1416 x (.0285 x .0285) x .0625 = .00016 ci. Apx. if I did my math correct.

    As you can imagine a diesel engine trying to run with a cylinder displacement not much larger than a diesel fuel molecule would be difficult at best. The same problem arises with your live N-Steamer.

    And we won’t even get into the whole valve size and its area opening, also something that doesn’t “Scale”.
  7. Pete Nolan

    Pete Nolan TrainBoard Supporter


    You're correct. Well, it was a good dream while it lasted. But perhaps a meso-scale (not nano- or micro-scale) engine would work?
  8. ditSteve

    ditSteve TrainBoard Member

    Sorry, just wanted to clarify that misunderstanding about scale.

  9. sandro schaer

    sandro schaer TrainBoard Member

    electric powered live steam ? nahh... a live steamer must burn coal or gas.

    btw, there's a german manufacturer building h0 live steam. the smallest loco is less than 3" long......
  10. BoxcabE50

    BoxcabE50 HOn30 & N Scales Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter


    Never say never. Just think back. Look at all these things we have now, which a few decades ago, were unknown. Or even openly declared as impossible.

    Who knows what tomorrow will bring? That's the stuff dreams are made from.

    Would I be interested in microscopic steam? No. But if someone sets their mind to it, and invests their heart, (along with life savings), we may live long enough to see this come to life.


    Boxcab E50
  11. JASON

    JASON TrainBoard Supporter

    I'm looking for the article Pete,it has been done!I remember reading about it years ago,it was only a boiler that was heated through a heat sink into working cyclinders,rods etc.Was made from brass & was a 2-8-0 or along those lines,though not a true steam engine but a running N scale steam engine think was made back in the 50's or 60's!
    I'll keep looking for it.
  12. BillN

    BillN TrainBoard Member

  13. Eagle2

    Eagle2 Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

    Pete, I think the hard part here would be maintaining the beast, keeping everything cleaned out and operating properly (for example, accounting for deposits inside the smokebox equivelant and piping)
  14. beast5420

    beast5420 TrainBoard Member

    tribology, i can never remember that term for some reason :D .... i agree there are ways to make a steam cylinder drive at clost to a n scale, but there are a lot of "shortcuts" alluded to in some of the posts since my last one. this would not make it a true "scale" of the prototype, but for some it would work pretty well.

  15. Pete Nolan

    Pete Nolan TrainBoard Supporter

    But wouldn't this be prototypical! Just imagine a whole line of micro-tools and micro-people wielding them! All of the people covered in grease and soot. An all-nighter to service the biggest beasties for the next morning.
  16. Eagle2

    Eagle2 Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

    Pete, there's a word for that kind of thinking - masochism!
  17. Pete Nolan

    Pete Nolan TrainBoard Supporter

    Wait a second! A correct cylinder displacement of .00016 ci is absolutely huge in the microsystems world. Maybe there's hope.
  18. LR&BRR

    LR&BRR TrainBoard Member

    pete actually i remember finding a site from england where an engineer did exactly that he machined a working steam engine in i think it was 1:120 scale

    i have searched google but cant find the site now
  19. GP30

    GP30 TrainBoard Member

    Interesting topic, here.

    I was just curious, what would happen if a boiler explosion occurred? I would assume it would be the equivalent of splitting an atom. :D
  20. SLSF Freak

    SLSF Freak Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter


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