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© March 03, 2005 

©Whistle Blast, the newsletter of the New Jersey Live Steamers Inc. Gary Madlinger, editor. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission. This article first appeared in July-August 2004 issue of The Whistle Blast. Used here with permission

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Coal and Air
The vital pairing that
makes steamers go

Photo by Chris Welvang

Written by Gary M. Madlinger   

In its simplest terms, coal burns when it unites with oxygen and gives out heat. But, for an aspiring steam locomotive engineer, a much more detailed understanding of the process can be helpful in the efficient practicing of his or her craft.  To begin, the oxygen provided to the burning process comes from the air, which is a mixture of roughly 23% oxygen and 77% nitrogen.  

Coal, on the other hand, has a number of substances included besides the critical base component – carbon.  A typical “dirty” coal might have these (table to the right) approximate ingredients by weight.

When the coal is burned, the hydrogen partly unites with the oxygen, causing water vapor or steam.  Other hydrogen portions unite with the carbon to create hydrocarbon vapors.  It is these vapors, when burned that create the bright flame in the firebox. 

   Sulphur   1.0%
   Nitrogen   1.0%
   Hydrogen   5.5%
   Ash   7.0%
   Oxygen   10.5%
   Carbon   75.0%

The unburned hydrocarbon vapor escapes up the smokestack, which often occurs when an engine has just been fired up.  The result is the distinctive yellowish smoke so often seen on the steaming bays early in the day.  When the engine is up to steam and the firebox temperature reaches about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, these hydrocarbons unite with the oxygen in the air, creating a smokeless flame. If there is not enough air, unburned hydrocarbons escape, causing black smoke out the stack. One cause of this restricted airflow could be clinkers, or chunks of material caused when the Sulphur in the coal burns, separates and sticks to the firebox grate. 

Photo by Hank Bloch                               

Through the burning process the small amount of nitrogen in the coal escapes and passes up the stack, taking some heat with it.  The 77% nitrogen in the air, however, has a more dramatic effect on the steaming process.  One pound of coal takes about 12 pounds of air to burn, and of those 12 pounds, 9 are comprised of nitrogen.  This nitrogen does not burn or aid in the process.  Instead, because it has to be heated along with the oxygen to the prescribed temperature, it acts to reduce the rate of combustion and causes a great deal of heat loss.  For the steam engineer, this means care should be taken that only the necessary amount of air be admitted to the firebox, and the surest way to judge is to watch the smokestack.  When coal is placed in a clean, smokeless fire the hydrocarbons quickly convert to coal gas and combine with the oxygen of the air being pulled in from the grate vents and firebox door opening.  Complete combustion occurs when the outside of the coal is heated and then slowly distilled until the entire mass glows red-hot.  This mass is mostly carbon, as the other chemicals have been driven off.  This carbon unites with oxygen in the air being provided through the grates, and a flame forms.  If the air is not sufficient, some of the gases in the coal do not get burned.  As noted earlier, they exit through the smokestack as thick, black smoke.  When seeing this, an engineer needs to add some air.  On the prototype this meant opening the firehole door and the dampers.

As is often the case, however, there is more to the story.  In the British railroad manual used for this article, the author offers this stern advice for prototype engineers. The italics for emphasis are his. “A warning must be given here that the extra air drawn in through the firehole door must not be excessive, as it all requires heating up to the temperature of the firebox gases, and if it is not heated up, it lowers the temperature of the gases passing through the tubes.  The water in the boiler is heated by these hot gases, and the heat given to the water depends on the gases being much hotter than the water, otherwise no heat can pass.  A safe rule is to allow sufficient air to be admitted through the firehole door to allow of the smoke being completely or almost completely, consumed, but no more.”

Continuing the discussion of the proper mix of air and the coal fire, the author goes on to add some instruction on how to deal with an engine’s fire during a long wait in the station, or anytime when the generation of steam needs to be reduced.  “. . . the firehole door must not be opened to cool the boiler and firebox.  This is bad practice, and leads to leaky tubes and broken stays; further, heat is wasted unnecessarily.  The proper thing to do, is to cut off the supply of that gas necessary for coal to burn, viz., the oxygen of the air, by closing the firehole door and one or more of the dampers.” 

Lastly, to ensure proper combustion and airflow, the management of the coal in the firebox is important.  “The fire should at all times be as thin as possible, without being allowed to burn into holes, and thicker at the sides than the middle.  This allows free access of air through the grate, and the slight thickening at the sides, prevents any gases creeping up the sides, and being drawn off through the tubes unburnt.  A glowing fire at the center of the grate will consume any smoke formed.” 

Taking all these elements and combining them for a well run and efficient trip around the layout seems a pretty good definition of the joys of live steaming, and it’s hard to improve upon the words above as the objective for every live steamer.  Here’s hoping you have “a glowing fire at the center of the grate” on your next trip.


Based on How the Locomotive Works and Why, a railroad manual produced for the Nigerian rail system

                                            Written by Gary M. Madlinger
Photos by Chris Welvang and Hank Bloch

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