The uniflow type of steam engine uses steam that flows in one direction only in each half of the cylinder. Thermal efficiency is increased in the compound and multiple expansion types of steam engine by separating expansion into steps in separate cylinders; in the uniflow design, thermal efficiency is achieved by having a temperature gradient along the cylinder. Steam always enters at the hot ends of the cylinder and exhausts through ports at the cooler centre. By this means the relative heating and cooling of the cylinder walls is reduced.
Steam entry is usually controlled by poppet valves (which act similarly to those used in internal combustion engines) that are operated by a camshaft. The inlet valves open to admit steam when minimum expansion volume has been reached at the start of the stroke. For a period of the crank cycle steam is admitted and the poppet inlet is then closed, allowing continued expansion of the steam during the stroke, driving the piston. Near the end of the stroke the piston will expose a ring of exhaust ports mounted radially around the centre of the cylinder. These ports are connected by a manifold and piping to the condenser, lowering the pressure in the chamber below that of the atmosphere causing rapid exhausting. Continued rotation of the crank moves the piston. From the animation the features of a uniflow engine can be seen, with a large piston almost half the length of the cylinder, poppet inlet valves at either end, a camshaft (whose motion is derived from that of the driveshaft) and a central ring of exhaust ports.
Uniflow engines potentially allow greater expansion in a single cylinder without the relatively cool exhaust steam flowing across the hot end of the working cylinder and steam ports of a conventional "counterflow" steam engine during the exhaust stroke. This condition allows high thermal efficiency. The exhaust ports are only open for a small fraction of the piston stroke, therefore not all of the expanded steam is able to exhaust. This remaining steam is compressed by the returning piston and is thermodynamically desirable as it preheats the hot end of the cylinder before the admission of steam. However, the risk of excessive compression often results in small auxiliary exhaust ports being included at the cylinder heads. Such a design is called a semi-uniflow engine.
Engines of this type usually have multiple cylinders in an in-line arrangement and may be single- or double-acting. A particular advantage of this type is that the valves may be operated by the effect of multiple camshafts, and by changing the relative phase of these camshafts, the amount of steam admitted may be increased for high torque at low speed and may be decreased at cruising speed for economy of operation, and by changing the absolute phase the engine's direction of rotation may be changed. The uniflow design also maintains a constant temperature gradient through the cylinder, avoiding passing hot and cold steam through the same end of the cylinder.
In practice the uniflow engine had a number of operational shortcomings. The large expansion ratio required a large cylinder volume. To gain the maximum potential work from the engine a high reciprocation rate was required, typically 80% faster than a double-acting engine. This caused the opening times of the inlet valves to be very short, putting great strain on a delicate mechanical part. In order to withstand the huge mechanical forces encountered, engines had to be heavily built and a large flywheel was required to smooth out the variations in torque as the steam pressure rapidly rose and fell in the cylinder. Additionally, as there was a thermal gradient across the cylinder, the metal of the wall expanded to different extents. This required precise boring of the cylinder barrel to be wider in the cool centre than at the hot ends. If the cylinder was not heated correctly, or if water entered, the delicate balance could be upset causing seizure mid-stroke or, potentially, destruction.
The uniflow engine was first used in Britain in 1827 by Jacob Perkins and was patented in 1885 by Leonard Jennett Todd. It was popularised by German engineer Johann Stumpf in 1909, with the first commercial stationary engine produced a year previously in 1908.
The uniflow principle was mainly used for industrial power generation, but was also tried in a few railway locomotives in England, such as the North Eastern Railway uniflow locomotives No 825 of 1913, and No 2212 of 1919, and the Midland Railway Paget locomotive. Experiments were also made in the USA and Russia. In no case were the results encouraging enough for further development to be undertaken.
The final commercial evolution of the Uniflow engine occurred in the USA during the late 1930s and 1940s by the Skinner Engine Company with the development of the Compound Unaflow Marine Steam Engine. This engine operated in a steeple compound configuration and provided efficiencies approaching contemporary diesels. Many lake freighters and car ferrys on the Great Lakes were so equipped, several of which are still operating. Notable among these is the SS Badger. The Casablanca class escort carrier, the most prolific aircraft carrier design in history, used 2 5-cylinder Skinner Unaflow engines.
In small sizes (less than about 1000 horsepower), reciprocating steam engines are much more efficient than steam turbines. The Whitecliffs solar steam power plant uses a three-cylinder uniflow engine to generate about 25 kW electrical output.
The single-acting uniflow steam engine configuration closely resembles that of a two-stroke internal combustion engine, and it is possible to convert a two-stroke engine to a uniflow steam engine by feeding the cylinder with steam via a "bash valve" fitted in place of the spark plug. As the rising piston nears the top of its stroke it knocks open the bash valve to admit a pulse of steam. The valve closes automatically as the piston descends, and the steam is exhausted through the existing cylinder porting. The inertia of the flywheel then carries the piston back to the top of its stroke against the compression, as it does in the original form of the engine. Also like the original, the conversion is not self-starting and must be turned over by an external power source to start. An example of such a conversion is this steam-powered moped, which is started by pedalling.