Living with Technology: Steam still keeps Navy vessels ship-shape
Earlier this month, I went on a Boy Scout trip to Battleship Cove near Boston.
At Battleship Cove, they have a number of military ships, including the battleship USS Massachusetts, the submarine USS Lionfish, destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr and a former East German patrol boat, the Hiddensee.
As fun as it is to see the exteriors of these ships, I find the inner workings of them to be even more fascinating— in particular, the large ships that carry 2,000 or more people. These are truly floating cities, with restaurants, barbers, tailors, gymnasiums, dorm rooms, repair shops … plus all of the military stuff.
One thing that I noticed about the ships was that they were steam powered. Really. Basically, they would heat water, the steam then spins a turbine and use that energy to propel the largest ships, create electricity, make fresh water and more.
When I think that the destroyer Massachusetts was built for World War II, that was a long time ago, so I assumed steam had been replaced by diesel engines or diesel/electric drives.
The answer surprised me.
It appears that most of the very large ships are still steam powered! I asked about nuclear ships and he said that, yes, they have nuclear power, but that’s used to generate steam for the steam turbines to do the other work.
Most people probably know that nuclear power plants are near water. And nuclear power plants heat water which is then cooled in the large cooling towers that easily identify these plants. Additional cooling is done in large cooling ponds, lakes or even the ocean.
But I was very surprised to hear that some of the largest ships we have going around the world are powered by steam.
When I think of steam power, I think of early engines that don’t have a lot of horsepower or building with clunky steam heaters that make noise and fail a lot.
Steam is not something that ranks high on my list of obvious power sources.
But according to our destroyer tour guide, steam is a remarkably reliable and powerful source of energy and a very capable tool for creating the various items that a large ship needs, including propulsion, energy and fresh water.
Of course, the question then, is: Why don’t we have steam that powers our homes and cars?
Apparently the benefits of steam are only realized in large scale and when there are large sources of water nearby. The systems also require a significant amount of active involvement, which is what a ship has in spades … lots of sailors.
Even so, it was great to see a form of energy I had completely written as obsolete in a brand new light. It’s also good to see old technologies that still have relevancy.
Mark Mathias of Westport is a 35-year information technology executive. His columns can be read at http://blog.mathias.org online. He can be contacted at email@example.com.