An oil burner engine is a steam engine that uses oil as its fuel. The term is usually applied to a locomotive or ship engine that burns oil to heat water, to produce the steam which drives the pistons, or turbines, from which the power is derived.
This is mechanically very different from diesel engines, which use internal combustion, although they are sometimes colloquially referred to as oil burners.
A variety of experimental oil powered steam boilers were patented in the 1860s. Most of the early patents used steam to spray atomized oil into the steam boilers furnace. Attempts to burn oil from a free surface were unsuccessful due to the inherently low rates of combustion from the available surface area.
On 21 April 1868 the steam yacht Henrietta made a voyage down the river Clyde powered by an oil fired boiler designed and patented by a Mr Donald of George Miller & Co. Donald's design used a jet of dry steam to spray oil into a furnace lined with fireproof bricks. Prior to the Henrietta’s oil burner conversion, George Miller & Co was recorded as having used oil to power their works in Glasgow for a “considerable time”.
During the late 19th century numerous burner designs were patented using combinations of steam, compressed air and injection pumps to spray oil into boiler furnaces. Most of the early oil burner designs were commercial failures due to the high cost of oil (relative to coal) rather than any technical issues with the burners themselves.
In the 1870s Caspian steamships began using Mazut, a residual fuel oil which at that time was produced as a waste stream by the many oil refineries located in the Absheron peninsula. During the late 19th century Mazut remained cheap and plentiful in the Caspian region.
In 1870 either the SS Iran or SS Constantine (depending on source) became the first ship to convert to burning fuel oil, both were Caspian based merchant steamships.
During the 1870s, the Imperial Russian Navy converted the ships of the Caspian fleet to oil burners starting with the Khivenets in 1874.
In 1894, the oil tanker SS Baku Standard became the first oil burning vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean. In 1903, the Red Star Liner SS Kensington became the first passenger liner to make the Atlantic crossing with boilers fired by fuel oil.
Fuel oil has a higher energy density than coal and oil powered ships did not need to employ stokers however coal remained the dominant power source for marine boilers throughout the 19th century primarily due to the relatively high cost of fuel oil. Oil was used in marine boilers to a greater extent during the early 20th century. By 1939 about half the world’s ships burned fuel oil, of these about half had steam engines and the other half used diesel engines.
Oil burners designed by Thomas Urquhart were fitted to the locomotives of the Gryazi-Tsaritsyn railway in southern Russia. Thomas Urquhart, who was employed as a Locomotive Superintendent by the Gryazi-Tsaritsyn Railway Company, began his experiments in 1874. By 1885 all the locomotives of the Gryazi-Tsaritsyn Railway had been converted to run on fuel oil.
In Great Britain an early pioneer of oil burning railway locomotives was James Holden, of the Great Eastern Railway. In James Holden's system, steam was raised by burning coal before the oil fuel was turned on. Holden's first oil burning locomotive Petrolea, was a class T19 2-4-0. Built in 1893, Petrolea burned waste oil that the railway had previously been discharging into the River Lea.
Some oil-burning engines were originally designed to be coal powered but were converted. When a coal-burning steam locomotive is converted to burn oil, various modifications are usual:
The latter two changes are needed because oil firing produces higher temperatures than coal firing, and can cause rapid erosion of metal. For a similar reason, the smokebox is sometimes painted with silver-coloured heat-resisting paint.
James Holden's use of oil firing on the Great Eastern Railway is mentioned above and it was used sporadically on Britain's railways, usually because of coal shortages. A Parliamentary question was asked about it in 1919.