Steam ships come back to the future

A UK company developing a high-tech steam propulsion unit for ships said it will be ready to take the product to the marketplace by the end of the year.

Pursuit Dynamics claims its Pursuit Marine Drive will be quieter, safer and more efficient than current systems by powering ships using high-pressure steam rather than a conventional propeller.

John Heathcote, chief executive, this week said that, with technical development on target, he was confident of beginning talks with potential partners over manufacturing, marketing and providing maintenance support by the end of 2002.

High-pressure injection

Pursuit Dynamics was set up to develop and commercialise technology that was first conceived by Australian engineer Alan Burns in 1997.

The Pursuit Drive has no submerged rotating components and few moving parts of any kind. It uses an engine inside the boat to generate steam from either fresh or seawater. The steam is injected at high pressure into a water-filled drive unit submerged beneath the vessel.

The steam implodes, creating a low-pressure zone that sucks water and air from the front of the drive unit and ejects it from the rear at high enough a velocity to create thrust.

Pursuit Dynamics’ engineers believe the system can replace the motor, clutch, gearbox, drive shaft and propeller used in a conventional marine engine.The company claims this will lead to lighter, quieter engines that need less maintenance and are cheaper to manufacture. The absence of a rotating propeller would also make the engine safer for nearby swimmers and marine life.

It will initially be targeted at small and medium-sized vessels, a market estimated to be worth around $6.5bn (£4.5bn) a year worldwide.

Heathcote said that the majority of the technical issues surrounding the system had now been overcome. ‘There are still hurdles, but we have a clear view of what they are and a good idea how to jump them,’ said Heathcote.

‘We have identified a number of areas where we might be able to source a compact steam generator, and that is now a priority,’ he added.

Engineering talent

Pursuit Dynamics has just finished relocating its R&D facility from Australia to Royston, Hertfordshire.

Heathcote said the pool of specialist engineering talent and research facilities available in the UK had prompted the move.

‘We did not believe we had access to the right sort of expertise in western Australia,’ he said. ‘We are trying to do something that has never been done before, and as a small team we will inevitably rely heavily on external resources.’

The company’s staff includes Michael Todman, a former chief engineer at Rolls-Royce Power Engineering, who joined Pursuit Dynamics as chief technical officer late last year.