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Old 03-31-2020, 11:52 AM
Goody Goody is offline
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Default Gasification Furnace for CHP Steam Engine Project



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I recently began a LONG TERM project that will advance SLOWLY. I have an interest in small scale steam power, but never seriously considered to build a system because I could not justify it financially. Honestly, I still can't justify it. However, I considered different ways to reduce costs by re-purposing readily available components.

In my opinion, a serious project should first develop the FURNACE used to heat a steam generator (note that traditional boilers are not a viable alternative). A suitable furnace requires certain qualities that include: (1) clean burn, (2) high temperatures, (3) controllable output, (4) wide turndown ratio, and (5) optimized for the desired fuel.

The desired fuel for this project is wood with minimal processing. The small test furnace seen in the attached pic burned small wood blocks (seen in the pic), large wood blocks up to 4" in diameter, small wood splits (about 2-3" in diameter and a foot long), and scrap lumber in the form of 3 foot lengths of 2x4's dropped vertically down into the furnace fire tube. There was NO smoke from the combustion chamber by sight or by odor (after initial start up that produced smoke, of course). I estimate the temperatures in the combustion chamber approached 2000F. A blower fan powered by a variac varied the output from about 3 KW to roughly 10 KW.

The furnace in the attached pic was merely a proof of concept, and has been scrapped. I am currently assembling another unit based on the same design, but with superior materials. The new test furnace will be used to heat a monotube steam generator for my small 1 KWe steam engine design.

NOTE: I emphasize again this is a long term project that must advance slowly. Realistic expectations are in order. I do not expect to have a small test unit operating until some time in 2022 - if at all. If the engine systems don't work out for any reason (which might include avoiding the expense of steam generator inspection and certification - if it is required at this scale), or if financial constraints prove too burdensome, then I would restrict the design to a compact and efficient wood fired hydronic heating system.
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Last edited by Goody; 03-31-2020 at 06:44 PM.. Reason: clarification of the term "boiler"
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Old 03-31-2020, 04:42 PM
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If you generate steam you have a boiler. Regardless of fuel used, you have to boil water (or other suitable media) to get steam. If the steam you generate is above 15 psi, it is a High Pressure boiler.

There is a reason commercial powerhouses boil water with coal, gas or fission and not wood or wood gasification.
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Old 03-31-2020, 06:39 PM
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If you generate steam you have a boiler. Regardless of fuel used, you have to boil water (or other suitable media) to get steam. If the steam you generate is above 15 psi, it is a High Pressure boiler.
Yes. I will provide clarification. When I use the term "steam generator", I refer to a particular boiler design often called a "monotube steam generator". The design differs from traditional boilers sufficiently to warrant a distinction. Traditional boilers are potentially dangerous, and therefore should not be in the hands of unskilled operators. For this reason, they are not suitable for a small scale steam engine project. By contrast, a small monotube steam generator is inherently safer - and with proper design can be perfectly safe.

NOTE: I modified the original post to read "traditional boilers" as opposed to "boilers". I thank you for the feedback.

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There is a reason commercial powerhouses boil water with coal, gas or fission and not wood or wood gasification.
Certainly! There also is a reason to select wood fuel to heat and power an off grid home.
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Old 03-31-2020, 10:10 PM
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Wood will work. I like the steam engine concept and have posted my thoughts on a way to do it some where here (DIY section).

My current goal is to make a small displacement multi-fuel engine to run on processed waste engine oil. I plan to run a self igniting alternator that charges the battery bank. I'll capture the waste heat off the engine and exhaust using it to heat a water anti-freeze mix. The heated mix will be used for space and water heating.

I would also like to make pine needle pellets - people would pay me to rake up my winter heat.
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Old 03-31-2020, 10:33 PM
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1 tube or 1000, if the fluid flashes to steam inside a sealed vessel, its a boiler. And just as dangerous.

Don't convince yourself otherwise. You'll get hurt.
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Old 03-31-2020, 11:01 PM
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1 tube or 1000, if the fluid flashes to steam inside a sealed vessel, its a boiler. And just as dangerous.

Don't convince yourself otherwise. You'll get hurt.
There is an element of danger. However, it is not the same. It is NOT "just as dangerous". I do not have to convince myself because the experiments were done. It's academic at this point. A monotube steam generator that fails does not explode. It splits and sort of fizzles out. The volume inside monotube casings is often larger than the expansion volume of the steam that escapes when the tubing splits and this steam is directed out the furnace exhaust. The main concern I have is leakage or failure of connections. In short, there can be no exposed steam lines or connections and all steam leakage must be directed to the steam generator casing to leave through the furnace exhaust.

STEAM GENERATOR DESTRUCTIVE TEST: https://youtu.be/2KiTyGvVvqo

FIRE TUBE BOILER EXPLOSION: https://youtu.be/9c-wOGOr0io

... definitely it does not appear "just as dangerous". If you are aware of evidence to the contrary, then I respectfully request that you provide this evidence.
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Old 03-31-2020, 11:13 PM
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Wood will work. I like the steam engine concept and have posted my thoughts on a way to do it some where here (DIY section).

My current goal is to make a small displacement multi-fuel engine to run on processed waste engine oil. I plan to run a self igniting alternator that charges the battery bank. I'll capture the waste heat off the engine and exhaust using it to heat a water anti-freeze mix. The heated mix will be used for space and water heating.

I would also like to make pine needle pellets - people would pay me to rake up my winter heat.
Howdy. I did some research into pine needles as fuel years ago and also verified they burned well in very small furnace I made. I recall the energy in a pound of pine needles is greater than wood and the ash content is fairly low. It makes a good fuel. I don't know if it makes good pellets, but shredded pine needles seem to burn well enough - when dry of course.

I am interested in energy self-reliance in the off grid setting. I consider biomass as the only viable fuel in this setting, so I have done a lot of thinking on how to optimize use of this fuel source. So far I am convinced a well constructed CHP steam engine system is the best candidate.
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Old 04-01-2020, 11:25 AM
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There is an element of danger. However, it is not the same. It is NOT "just as dangerous". I do not have to convince myself because the experiments were done. It's academic at this point. A monotube steam generator that fails does not explode. It splits and sort of fizzles out. The volume inside the typical monotube casing is larger than the expansion volume of the steam that escapes when the tubing splits and this steam is directed out the furnace exhaust. The main concern I have is leakage or failure of connections. These connection points must be contained to direct any steam released from leakage or a failure. In short, there can be no exposed steam lines or connections and all steam leakage must be directed to the steam generator casing to leave through the furnace exhaust.

STEAM GENERATOR DESTRUCTIVE TEST: https://youtu.be/2KiTyGvVvqo

FIRE TUBE BOILER EXPLOSION: https://youtu.be/9c-wOGOr0io

... definitely it does not appear "just as dangerous". If you are aware of evidence to the contrary, then I respectfully request that you provide this evidence.
There is a BIG difference between a water tube boiler and a fire tube boiler, both in safety and efficiency. With the required addition of a steam separator, you can approach the steam production level of a similar sized fire tube boiler, but not quite get there. But fuel requirements are vastly different.

Most schools, churches, office buildings use some type of fire tube boiler for either heat, hot water or both. Small applications use cast iron sectional boilers, larger requirements use fire tube scotch marine type boilers.

The point of the above statements is that very few water tube boilers are used in non-industrial applications. Fuel efficiency, water treatment and operator attention are greatly increased for a WT boiler over a FT boiler. A tube failure in a WT boiler is nowhere near as catastrophic as shell failure in a FT boiler.

In the film clip from Clayton (which is a very respected boiler and pressure vessel manufacturer) what they are demonstrating is a tube failure in a single loop water tube boiler. Basically, water/steam squirts out and the tubes melt. That is exactly what is supposed to happen. If you're lucky, the steam and water leaking will put your fire out (unless you're using gas, then not so lucky) like the fusible plugs used in Locomotives. When that happens, the boiler is destroyed.

That application requires treated feedwater, the addition of a steam separator along with computer controlled monitoring of feedwater condition, temperature and pressure, boiler temperature and pressure, along with a condensate recovery system to save and reuse some of that very expensive treated feedwater.

You can't run one for very long (regardless of the type) with untreated feedwater.

Go into this with both eyes open. I don't want to read about you on the news. Power generation requires a lot of effort. You can't just turn it on and walk away.

Now wood gasification to power a small generator? Every homestead should have one!
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Old 04-01-2020, 11:37 AM
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I know you like the idea of steam power but do you expect you will be able to build anything reliable?

If you want something somewhat reliable and wood fired maybe look into charcoal gasifiers. Although you would still need to store large amounts of lubricating oil if you intend to run it long term.

I am of the opinion that the best way to start is to reduce you needs for power completely then slow add thing back in that would be nice to have and substantially cut the amount of work needed to get a given job done.

If you are wanting a small power source(rotational or rectilinear), wind and water have been used for at least a thousand years and have proven to be quite reliable. They may not produce much power at once but can be run without attention 24/7 and can accomplish a lot of work. And don't have the added hassle of having to cut, stack and dry wood in order to fuel an engine to reduce the labor you need to do.

Depending on what you intend to power solar could also be a way to go.
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Old 04-01-2020, 02:32 PM
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Originally Posted by Jlrhiner View Post
There is a BIG difference between a water tube boiler and a fire tube boiler, both in safety and efficiency. With the required addition of a steam separator, you can approach the steam production level of a similar sized fire tube boiler, but not quite get there. But fuel requirements are vastly different.

Most schools, churches, office buildings use some type of fire tube boiler for either heat, hot water or both. Small applications use cast iron sectional boilers, larger requirements use fire tube scotch marine type boilers.

The point of the above statements is that very few water tube boilers are used in non-industrial applications. Fuel efficiency, water treatment and operator attention are greatly increased for a WT boiler over a FT boiler. A tube failure in a WT boiler is nowhere near as catastrophic as shell failure in a FT boiler.

In the film clip from Clayton (which is a very respected boiler and pressure vessel manufacturer) what they are demonstrating is a tube failure in a single loop water tube boiler. Basically, water/steam squirts out and the tubes melt. That is exactly what is supposed to happen. If you're lucky, the steam and water leaking will put your fire out (unless you're using gas, then not so lucky) like the fusible plugs used in Locomotives. When that happens, the boiler is destroyed.

That application requires treated feedwater, the addition of a steam separator along with computer controlled monitoring of feedwater condition, temperature and pressure, boiler temperature and pressure, along with a condensate recovery system to save and reuse some of that very expensive treated feedwater.

You can't run one for very long (regardless of the type) with untreated feedwater.

Go into this with both eyes open. I don't want to read about you on the news. Power generation requires a lot of effort. You can't just turn it on and walk away.
Something I have learned over the years is there is no substitute for (relevant) experience. For example, I used to work as a steam power plant operator (U.S. Navy - nuclear power). I also was responsible for maintaining feed water chemistry for a short while. I gained experience which proved valuable IN THAT SETTING. However, during my personal study of small scale steam power (which is a lost art), I learned most of my previous training and experience in steam power IS NOT RELEVANT HERE. Furthermore, my system is genuinely unique. What this means is I am in uncharted territory, so there are real dangers. Any reminder of these dangers is welcomed. I will heed the warning.

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Now wood gasification to power a small generator? Every homestead should have one!
I made extensive study of this technology years ago. For power generation using wood fuel, this is the practical alternative simply because it is currently the only alternative. If I were tasked with developing a large generator fueled by wood to service a small off grid community, then I would select a large wood gas engine system (and try to capture as much heat as practical for useful purposes). However, small units are problematic mainly for the fuel processing requirements. Quality wood pellets are a solution, but I consider this as effectively a commercial fuel.
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Old 04-01-2020, 03:10 PM
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I know you like the idea of steam power but do you expect you will be able to build anything reliable?

If you want something somewhat reliable and wood fired maybe look into charcoal gasifiers. Although you would still need to store large amounts of lubricating oil if you intend to run it long term.

I am of the opinion that the best way to start is to reduce you needs for power completely then slow add thing back in that would be nice to have and substantially cut the amount of work needed to get a given job done.

If you are wanting a small power source(rotational or rectilinear), wind and water have been used for at least a thousand years and have proven to be quite reliable. They may not produce much power at once but can be run without attention 24/7 and can accomplish a lot of work. And don't have the added hassle of having to cut, stack and dry wood in order to fuel an engine to reduce the labor you need to do.

Depending on what you intend to power solar could also be a way to go.
I do not know if my design will prove reliable. It would be naive to claim otherwise. I expect to come up against serious difficulties. I did a lot of design work to avoid most of the problems I could foresee. However, the devils are always in the details. I am prepared for it to not work out.

WOOD GASIFIER: I did extensive research into both wood gasifiers and charcoal gasifiers. I went in with enthusiasm, but finally concluded processing wood into charcoal is too labor intensive and inefficient. If I were tasked with developing an off grid combined heat and power system for a small community, then I would choose a large wood gas engine system. However, I do not consider small systems as viable for anything except intermittent emergency use.

SOLAR: In the off grid setting, I think solar is the most rational way to provide electricity. The primary purpose of my system is not to provide electricity, but HEAT. To better understand what I am doing, consider the system as a highly efficient and compact wood fueled hydronic heating system (FIRST) that also can produce electricity (SECOND). My system makes the most sense in the off grid setting where wood is the primary source of heat and where winters are severe. BTW, I have designed the system to provide heat without operating the engine system if desired.
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Old 04-01-2020, 03:39 PM
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Please go into it with your eyes open. The Clayton system you referenced above needs a great deal of power (electricity) to even run.

If you played with nukes in the Navy, you should be capable of judging what will get you killed and what won't.

As a 35 year Boilermaker, Boiler Inspector and briefly Chief Boiler Inspector, size doesn't really matter. A small boiler will kill just as fast as a big one.
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Old 04-01-2020, 04:13 PM
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Please go into it with your eyes open. The Clayton system you referenced above needs a great deal of power (electricity) to even run.

If you played with nukes in the Navy, you should be capable of judging what will get you killed and what won't.

As a 35 year Boilermaker, Boiler Inspector and briefly Chief Boiler Inspector, size doesn't really matter. A small boiler will kill just as fast as a big one.
I will be careful. Safety is a priority and why I did not consider a traditional small boiler. FYI, my boiler will be a 50' monotube made of 3/8" OD and 18 gauge 316 stainless formed into a compact helical coil. The coil will be positioned around and above a small combustion chamber all of which is contained within an insulated steel shroud that connects to the furnace exhaust. Furthermore, the steam line and its connection to the cylinder head is enclosed and any steam leakage directed to the furnace exhaust. So the interior volume is low, and the entire pressurized system is shielded.

NOTE: For clarification, the relevant comparison I wished to make between small monotube boilers (like my system) and the much larger Clayton boiler is limited to understanding how monotube boilers fail. A failure in the form of a split occurs in a localized section of the long tube. It takes time for the contents of the tube to move to the rupture and escape. Therefore, there is no explosion. The mass of steam and saturated water in many small designs (including my design) is so low that the steam generator shell has sufficient volume to contain most of the steam released. The small mass of superheated steam that may escape will be cooled to saturation from contact with the surrounding thermal mass. For example, I am aware of a failure of a small unit (much larger than mine by the way) that occurred while a person was literally standing right next to it. According to the account, there was a loud bang followed by several seconds of the sound of steam escaping and with puffs of saturated steam around the shell. There were no injuries. This in no way implies there to be no danger inherent with these systems. Only that these dangers are distinctly different, and I argue significantly less acute, than the dangers presented by traditional boilers (such as fire tube designs).

Last edited by Goody; 04-01-2020 at 06:52 PM.. Reason: Added NOTE
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Old 04-01-2020, 06:39 PM
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Good luck on your endeavors.

I know I sound like a broken record, but monitor your feedwater, inlet temp and press, also your outlet temp and press.

Keep us posted.
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Old 04-01-2020, 07:03 PM
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Broken Record #2 here.

People vastly underestimate the amount of wood fuel that is necessary to consume for any real work.

You will feed the beast constantly, the output will be unsteady and difficult to control.

Please go solar instead.
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Old 04-01-2020, 08:29 PM
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Broken Record #2 here.

People vastly underestimate the amount of wood fuel that is necessary to consume for any real work.

You will feed the beast constantly, the output will be unsteady and difficult to control.

Please go solar instead.
Yes, people who consider small scale steam engines often grossly overestimate efficiency. This is partly due to poor research, partly due to a poor understanding of basic thermodynamics, and partly due to considering "ideal" conditions that do not apply in the real world. I have no doubt my system will require a lot of wood fuel to generate shaft work(*). However, the primary purpose of my system is to provide for heating applications. Therefore, the efficiency of the engine cycle is not so important as the efficiency of the furnace and steam generator. My goal is to get at least 80% of the wood fuel lower heating value into the feed water to make steam -and with a viable path to exceeding 90%.

NOTE: On the system control difficulties, my system is designed to operate at a constant output specifically to avoid these difficulties.

BTW, in the off grid setting, I agree most electricity production should be provided with solar. Solar is brilliant in this setting.

(*) The efficiency estimate I make for my engine system is based on the performance of three engines that used a similar design and for which data is available. There were important differences, but all showed between 60% and 80% of theoretical maximum "Rankine" cycle efficiency. If I take my steam conditions and apply the lower 60% figure with 80% steam generator efficiency and 82% alternator efficiency (known), then the system must consume approximately 5 pounds of well seasoned wood (about 15% m.c.) to generate 1 KWh of DC electricity (at 24v). It will be difficult enough just to get a test unit running. If I manage to get it running, then I am confident incremental improvements will allow the system to show these results at the very least.
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Old 04-01-2020, 08:51 PM
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Good luck on your endeavors.

I know I sound like a broken record, but monitor your feedwater, inlet temp and press, also your outlet temp and press.

Keep us posted.
There are many nuances one cannot convey in this forum. I perceive your advice and concerns are sincere. Thank you Sir.

I will update the thread with any worthwhile progress - if any. Seriously, my budget is so limited I have to advance like whale snot (and I may come my senses eventually and stop the project for financial considerations). The plan is to complete the furnace and begin testing this summer. After testing I will install the steam generator and test at low pressure to measure the heat output and efficiency. Water feed pump assembly begins after this. I designed the pump, but I can always go with a small commercial model if it proves to be deficient.
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Old 04-01-2020, 09:38 PM
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The one thing that bothers me the most about the internet is the preponderance of mis-information put out for no other reason than the amusement of the poster.

And yes, I worry about people that I've never met.

There was a thread on here awhile back with a fella who made the statement he was using 1/2" dia sch 40 black iron pipe and running it at 9,000 psi. He was making a lot of statements and talking like an authority on steam engines and then he said that. It's a lie, its a lie that no one that has ever been involved with boilers, pressure vessels or welding would make because those folks know better. But it's out there on the internet and someone who doesn't know better might get killed.

I'll help anyone do anything that's within my power. I'll answer any question I can, even if I have to do a little research. (I still have my copies of ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel code, ANSI B31.1 Power Piping, the Handbook of the National Board and Babcock & Willcox's "Steam")

If I can be of any help, just ask.
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Old 04-01-2020, 09:45 PM
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Have you seen Jay's steam car Doble once owned by Howard Huges its a mono-tube flash boiler.

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Old 04-01-2020, 10:24 PM
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Originally Posted by Jlrhiner View Post
The one thing that bothers me the most about the internet is the preponderance of mis-information put out for no other reason than the amusement of the poster.

And yes, I worry about people that I've never met.

There was a thread on here awhile back with a fella who made the statement he was using 1/2" dia sch 40 black iron pipe and running it at 9,000 psi. He was making a lot of statements and talking like an authority on steam engines and then he said that. It's a lie, its a lie that no one that has ever been involved with boilers, pressure vessels or welding would make because those folks know better. But it's out there on the internet and someone who doesn't know better might get killed.
I believe I caught that comment from Steam Guy. Tom Kimmel served as president of the Steam Automobile Club of America for a long time (I am NOT a member). He has perhaps the most extensive collection of experimental steam engine systems in the world. His focus is "modern steam" systems constructed well after the age of steam power. He almost certainly knows something about steam power we do not know. I don't suggest one uncritically accept his claims - hell, I never do that. But he can probably back it up with solid evidence. Of course, he can always make a typo or other such careless error.

Tom has constructed automotive scale monotube steam generators using 1/2" schedule 40 black iron pipe. A quick reference yielded this link on his web site: http://kimmelsteam.com/coilwinder.html that describes the pipe in question with a burst pressure of 8000 psi. So, certainly it was not operated near this pressure. Similar pipe was used to construct monotube steam generators used in the Doble and White steam cars. The Doble operated at a pressure no higher than 1000 psig(*), and more typically saw around 800 psig. The White was closer to 600 psig. A more robust pipe was used to construct a superheater section.

(*) Not including Howard Hughes' crazy stunt where he modified the gear ratio of his Doble and then recalibrated the steam generator controls to take the pressure to 2000 psi, then took the car to 133 mph (the very same car in the previous post).
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