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Using 19th century technology could we break sound barrier with a manned aircraft running on steam engine only? To qualify the said aircraft must cross Atlantic Ocean with a flight ceiling capped at 1000 m above sea level.

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    $\begingroup$ Why does it need to fly below 1000 meters? Seems like an unnecessary complication. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 7 '16 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ Just for your chewing, it is way easier to break the sound barrier at higher altitudes than at 3,000 feet ASL. $\endgroup$ – SMS von der Tann Oct 7 '16 at 11:52
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No. Before powered sustained flight was invented, scientists and engineers were sometimes sensationalized in the newspapers as saying it’s impossible. The real story is a power vs weight relationship. Locomotives existed. Early research showed that using steam engines to fly was off by orders of magnitude.

Technology had to advance before such craft were possible. If they were possible with the existing technology at the time, they would have been built!

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    $\begingroup$ I can just imagine workers shoveling coal on a super sonic aircraft... $\endgroup$ – Skye Oct 7 '16 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ In Harry Harrison’s novel, the aircraft took coal dust and I suppose it can be automatically fed. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 7 '16 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ The Li P13a ramjet interceptor was conceived to use powdered coal as fuel as well, and estimated performance was in the supersonic range. Not bad for a late 1944 design during the death throes of the Nazi regime. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 7 '16 at 22:58
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I am going to give a very qualified "yes" answer to the question. Technically, the aircraft is steam powered, but I don't think this is in the spirit of the OP's question. On a larger scale, the answer is still "no", since crossing the Atlantic at low altitude is not going to be possible.

The answer is to use the Walther cycle of decomposing concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) into steam to power a rocket engine. This is essentially the system used in the ME-163 rocket plane and a few planned successors. A brief description of how it worked demonstrates that supersonic speed is potentially possible, but the downside of doing so with a Walther rocket engine.

enter image description here

Me-163

Early versions of the rocket engine were powered by "Z Stoff", a mixture of calcium permanganate or potassium permanganate suspended in water and used to catalyze the decomposition of the H2O2. This was considered a "cold" engine, but suffered from clogging of the nozzles and inability to throttle the engine. Later versions used a mixture of "C Stoff" (30% hydrazine hydrate + 57% methanol + 13% water with a small amount of potassium-copper-cyanide), which acts as a hypergolic fuel when mixed with "T Stoff" (the H2O2), releasing a considerable amount of heat along with the steam, and also being somewhat controllable in a rocket engine. Both versions of the motor ("cold" engine with Z Stoff and "hot" engine burning C Stoff and T Stoff) could propel the ME 163 to transonic speeds, where compressibility became an issue in controlling the airframe. With suitable aerodynamic refinements, the ME 163 had the potential to become the world's first supersonic fighter aircraft.

enter image description here

The HWK-509 engine

However, like all rocket engines, the HWK-509A engine consumed fuel at a fantastic rate. In the case of the ME-163, the plane was running on empty once to was at operational altitude, and the pilot was essentially flying into the bomber stream (and away from escorting fighters) in a high speed glider. In addition to that, C Stoff and T Stoff were difficult to handle, incredibly corrosive and prone to explode when subjected to a violent shock, such as the disposable launch dolly bouncing up and striking the aircraft as it took off, or the dregs of the fuel and oxidizer exploding when the plane slammed into the ground on landing.

While little could be done about the nature of the fuel, except for some pretty drastic handling protocols by the ground crew (including having thousands of litres of water available to flush the aircraft and work area in case of a spill), larger versions of the ME 163 were under consideration as the war approached the end. The ME-263 had a much larger and more refined airframe capable of carrying more fuel (in order to have more flight endurance), and some consideration was given to using the rocket motor in flight to assist the pilot in making his attack run and evading marauding allied fighters.

enter image description here

ME 263

So a supersonic "steam rocket" using some form of Hydrogen Peroxide decomposing to steam is possible for short ranged aircraft. H2O2 in high concentrations is quite unstable, so ground crews will be extremely wary of it, and if used in conjunction with other fuels (like C Stoff, but other versions of the Walther cycle using gasoline or diesel fuel were also experimented with) you don't exactly have a steam rocket, but a somewhat more versatile bipropellant rocket system.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is also the ammonia engines in the X-15 which still holds the record for the fastest manned aircraft. Not steam powered like the OP requires, but certainly doable with 19th century technology since all the elements required for superalloys like Nimonic had been isolated by the early 1800s. $\endgroup$ – Tim Oct 7 '16 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim Going from 'elements have been identified' to 'casting and shaping a defect-free structural piece of Nimonic ' is probably a little harder than snapping your fingers... $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 7 '16 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ It's not the knowing that's hard, it's the doing.. At a guess, I'd say the time difference between 'elements have been identified' to 'casting and shaping a defect-free structural piece of Nimonic ' is more along the line of about 120 years. Just slightly longer than a snap of one's fingers. $\endgroup$ – Tim Oct 7 '16 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ Correct me if I'm wrong here, but as far as I remember the mentioned Junker/Messerschmidt jet was developed in the 20th century, thus it doesn't really fit the 19th century constraint on technology..? $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Oct 11 '16 at 5:30
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The difficulty is in generating thrust from steam power. You can build a steam-powered aircraft that uses propellers to generate thrust. That isn't particularly difficult. But making a propeller-driven aircraft supersonic is sufficiently hard that nobody has ever tried it. Every supersonic aircraft has been propelled by gas turbines, or in a few cases, rockets.

You can build a steam rocket: something that burns fuel to heat water to steam and use the expansion of the steam as a rocket. But it's horribly inefficient, because you need the burner system and a boiler, and you just can't get the temperatures that would make a rocket even slightly efficient. You're also throwing reaction mass overboard at a terrible rate, because water is heavy. You'll never get this to cross the Atlantic.

You might manage this with a steam turbine system that drove a ducted fan, which had an appropriate kind of air intake so that the fan wasn't seeing supersonic flow. But the craft will be huge, and terribly inefficient compared to a gas-turbine engine.

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Low bypass turbofans, turbojets or rocket engines are the only ways we currently use to achieve supersonic flight. Propeller driven engines, whether a Brayton cycle turboprop or a WWII diesel powered aircraft cannot generate enough thrust to effectively maintain powered flight past the speed of sound.

Rocket engines aren't steam powered, we'll just leave it at that.

Low bypass turbofans and turbojets work (very simply) by compressing intake air, burning fuel in it to heat it up, sending that hot gas through a turbine to power the compressor, and then exhausting the rest. In a turbofan, the compressor is also used as a propeller, to drive air around the engine (called bypass). Air must be subsonic when entering the compressor to prevent shock waves from propagating through the engine and 'putting out' the fuel burning in the combustion chamber. If you, say, roll through another aircraft's turbulent jet wash, these shock waves can form, as seen in the documentary Top Gun.

That is the science of a jet engine (again, in super brief). There is no way to involve a steam engine in a jet engine. To make a Brayton cycle work, you need a very hot heat source in your combustion chamber, heat transfer from steam will simply not work. You either need an atomized liquid (or gas, maybe?) fuel burning in the combustion chamber, or something exotic like a super-heated solid surface with very high surface area. So, nuclear powered jets are more feasible than steam powered jets.

So the long answer is No, you cannot power supersonic flight with any variation of a steam-based Rankine cycle. However, as stated before, rockets work just fine. If you want von Braun to make his developments in the 1870s instead o the 1930s, that’s up to you.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you boil water in a sealed boiler and build up enough steam pressure to launch a projectile at supersonic speed? Steam boiler doesn't need to tag along.. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Oct 7 '16 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Innovine Yes, but I don't think that meets the letter or spirit of the question. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 7 '16 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ It was not supposed to be an answer. I was just curious :) $\endgroup$ – Innovine Oct 7 '16 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ That is exactly the system Bob Truax devised for Evil Knievel to jump the Snake River Canyon back in the 1970's. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_rocket $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 7 '16 at 23:07
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Short: No

Longer: Nooooooooo...ooo?
Although such speeds could hypothetically be reached under the right conditions (vacuum, space, etc..) and maybe even on earth herself. The given time constraint of the 19th century makes this a no no.
While we could easily apply our 21st century science to the problem we'd still be missing the materials we so easily have available today that just were not available in that form and quality 200 years ago.
Thus, as already mentioned by others, we can a) not get past the power-to-weight issue, and b) we don't have materials strong enough to survive the forces applied at supersonic speed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you suggested steam-powered supersonic flight is impossible today? Your third paragraph almost implies current materials technology might make steam-powered flight work, while the fourth paragraph somewhat suggests otherwise even today because our materials aren't strong enough. Perhaps some clarification is needed. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 7 '16 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android applying currentday science could probably yield some results, but in the 19th century we won't have modern day materials available because producing them requires technology that has to be built and provided over time, which requires a shift in society etc........; e.g. you could apply out physics knowledge and what we learnt from building planes, but you'd still be lacking good materials $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Oct 7 '16 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Most steampunk technology is infeasible because 19th century materials weren't capable of sustaining their operations. The infrastructure & social organization to make & use them was missing too. I've read enough about Victorian engineering to know how dramatic the transformation the new steam technology was, but flight was impossible then. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 7 '16 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android that's about what I'm saying, yes $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Oct 7 '16 at 13:13
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Not feasible. It might be possible with unreasonably gargantuan structure with near unlimited resources, maybe main steam source would be not coal, but something different, still to stay at steampunk preferred (basically heavy) materials, it is just over the last edge effort. Some "mystic" electric power source might come in picture, but in the end to get energy from steam engine is too heavy for this purpose. So far this is only for "if it can fly". To reach sonic boom it is again a huge milestone, and pretty risky moment for the structure itself.

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With 19th century technology it is clearly impossible. However, saying it is absolutely impossible is inaccurate. You might want to look up Project Pluto, which was to have a nuclear powered Ramjet at supersonic speeds and low altitude. There were also other programs to have nuclear powered aircraft. Now most of those involved air cooled reactors, however having a high pressure reactor could also work.

Major problems from the 19th perspective would be having nuclear reactors to start with (though doing so would explain why steam is being used), heavier than air flight, the theory of ramjets, and the advanced metallurgy required to build such a craft, which was a problem still in the 1950's. Adding the metallurgy to your world could cause a problems of additional consequences.

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A water tube superheated steam generator of sufficient capacity can power a high speed compact steam engine to drive a ducted fan similar to the turbofan. If the steam is in a closed loop, you can get away with less water so less weight. Torque isn't an issue with steam power. there is plenty. weight management with super alloy boiler with light weight insulation can be used. To be honest, I am working on one such project. Not aiming supersonic as of now, but close to it. In short , a fan that works off steam power. check out the DOBLE car boiler system. As for condensing the steam back to water, you have a lot of surface area on the airplane wings. You could have a near silent flight with two ducted fans that are powered by steam engines. It can be definitely done.

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    $\begingroup$ Hello, Jai Shetty, and welcome to Worldbuilding. Perhaps you could include sources to prove your statements. Please take our tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have a nice day! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon - Reinstate Monica Jun 25 '18 at 20:12

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