The First Ever Inflation of a Balloon with Steam!

which took place on 17 April 2003

Through the courtesy of Mr. Sean Simington, the owner of the New Eccles Hall School in Eccles, Norfolk, England (their website is here), we have been allowed to pursue experiments with our Steam Balloon envelopes upon one of the school's recreation fields. We did our first full-scale inflation with steam on 17 April 2003.

(I must apologize for the quality of some of these photographs. We started the inflation very early in the morning in order to benefit from low wind conditions, and there was quite a bit of mist about.)

Much thanks are due to my long-suffering colleague Richard Nelson who gave a lot of help. Like me, he may be classified as a mad inventor. (His website is here). He is the operative shown in the pictures; I'm the camera-man.

Here is a picture of the steam generator (fully described elsewhere upon this website) ready to supply steam, complete with one-ton fuel tank:

The next picture shows the steam transport hose. The fact is, the hot flue gases coming out of the top of the boiler are at 200 degrees C or more, and if a gust of wind were to take the balloon and blow it over against the boiler, it would be immediately destroyed. Therefore it is essential to keep the balloon which is to be inflated, well away from the burner/boiler system that is supplying the steam. Moreover the entire system needs to be portable so that we can set it up in any balloon launch field. It took some time to figure out how to satisfy this requirement. The present steam hose is an uninsulated roll-up type hose, ingeniously hung upon a tightly tensioned strap like a clothesline, but inevitably there is some condensation loss. Anyway the final result is that the balloon is kept about 20 meters from the steam generator, which is an adequate margin for safety.

Another necessity in practice is a steam distribution box. If the supply of steam is continued after the balloon is full, there is a great danger of bursting the balloon. Moreover it's often necessary to cut off the steam supply in order to perform various adjustments to the equipment. Therefore we built the steam diversion box shown in the next photograph. Simply by pushing in the handle, all the steam supply can be diverted to go up the chimney so that it is released harmlessly in the air. This can be done in less than a second. In principle, when filling a balloon, a safety officer should be standing by at the handle at all times, so as to cut off the steam immediately in the case of any problem....

You can play or download a movie showing the steam coming out by clicking:

Here (2.7 MB)

Moreover, the water which condenses in the steam distribution equipment of course migrates to the lowest point or points of the system. If this water remained it would cause more and more trouble as time went on, and in the worst case great gouts of water might vomit out and severely scald the operatives. Therefore all system low points must be drained through steam traps. Since the steam overpressure never exceeds a few hundred pascals, simple U-tubes are perfectly adequate for trapping. This frame shows one of these:

This is a long shot of the business end of the setup in the morning sunshine and mist... Idyllic down there, isn't it? Well, we better do something about that!

The next picture shows the arrangements at the bottom end of the balloon for introducing the steam. In fact, although these arrangements were fairly sophisticated, they were not quite sophisticated enough, as will appear later....

Something should be said about this new and hi-tech balloon, because it is not yet described elsewhere on this website. So much data, so little time! It was made for me by Alom Group of Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia, a company which is becoming active in the airship and balloon field; we expect to hear much from them in the future... The balloon is made of a curious fabric, readily available in SE Asia but unknown in the US or Europe. (Good business opportunity for someone here.) It is a simple polypropylene (olefin) material like the fabric commonly used for cheap tarpaulins, with reflective aluminized Mylar film laminated onto both its sides. I believe it is made in Australia and/or New Zealand. The intended use is for building insulation. I am told that in the winter in NZ they wrap chicken sheds and wineries in this material!

The volume of the balloon is about 320 cubic meters, and it is quite heavy. I'll spare you the details until we know more about the performance after further tests. Suffice it to say that this balloon may, or may not, have enough lift when filled with steam, just be able to lift a man for a short dribble flight. It is not intended for extended human flight; it's basically a proof-of-concept. The diameter of the upper ball portion is 8 meters. This balloon seems quite large to a layman's eye, but it is very small by balloon standards.

So.... here we go! The steam gushed into the balloon, and very quickly the first influx of steam was eagerly trying to lift part of the envelope. At the point shown in the next picture we became the first men in history to actually see the lifting power of steam with our own eyes! (excluding momentary experiments when people have held polythene bags over kettle spouts) Weathermen have long known that, other things being equal, damp air is lighter than dry air, and of course the teachings of physics leave no room for doubt; but knowing it in theory, and actually seeing it happening, feel different somehow!

Now we've got a lot more steam in, and the envelope is beginning to waft about in the very light air movements like a spinnaker... Actually the weather wasn't really suitable for this type of balloon inflation, because there was no inversion, and the sea isn't far away from Eccles Hall School, so there are problems with sea and land breezes. We would probably be better off using the Cargolifter hangar!

Now it's beginning to look like a balloon! At this stage there is enough steam in the envelope, i.e. enough lift, to raise the entire envelope (about 60 kg) and whatever parasitic trickling-down water there may be, but not enough to lift the heavy metal water collection ring at the bottom. At this point I think the balloon didn't yet have much air in it - just pure steam.

The next phase of filling must involve the envelope picking up the water collection ring at its base from the state of lying on its side on the ground to the state of being held horizontally in the air. Such transitions from one stage to another are always tricky when dealing with balloons or airships; it may be easy to visualize that the equipment is stable in both the start stage and the end stage, but it can be quite difficult to get from one to the other. (Thanks Giles!) So the doughty Rick is giving the ring a hand to go up without pulling too hard on the steam supply tube (which is not strong)..... The wind was very light, but it was still there, and by now the ring was thrashing about a bit, albeit in slow motion.....

You can see in this photo, from the way that the envelope is leaning over, that a gust of wind has taken it... Actually Rick is struggling...

Whoof! the tube has come off... Rick is enveloped in a cloud of mist - you can see his hand, still gamely gripping the ring!

He's still trying to stabilize the situation...

Now he's coming up for a breath of dry air.... Actually, this episode wasn't nearly as dangerous as it looks, because there is no pressure behind the steam, although there is rather a lot of it. One meter from the tube mouth, the steam gush has turned to a harmless great cloud of mist - it feels pretty warm, but it no longer bites to the bone!

You can play or download a movie showing this mishap by clicking:

Here (6.5 MB)

There's a time hiatus between the last shot and the next. We turned the steam supply off and refixed the tube, which took some time. In this period the balloon sucked in quite a lot of air (I believe). Then we succeeded in actually getting the balloon full, and you can see it standing proudly here:

The envelope is actually pulling upwards fairly well. In fact the tube has come off again here; the steam supply has ceased.

A close-up of this fine balloon. Won't it look good when we have one about 25 meters in diameter!

You can play or download a movie showing the balloon standing in all its glory by clicking:

Here (6.6 MB)

By the way, in this movie you can hear a warplane shrieking past, because the New Eccles Hall School is quite close to the US air bases in Norfolk... Wonder how they'll appreciate this gleaming steam balloon, when we release it to rise upward to the stratosphere? At least it should show up well on radar!

Now the balloon is deflating (from the bottom, of course) due to condensation. You can see that we have diverted the steam supply to the chimney.

Here the envelope is lying down and we are tidying up.

The final picture illustrates a newly discovered fact about steam balloons - they damage the grass! Funnily enough, for two hundred years people talked about filling balloons and/or airships with steam, but the consequences of spilling boiling water all over the lawn were never realized.... It is obvious that we need to refine both our filling equipment, and the filling protocols. Never mind; not bad for a first shot at it!


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