Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Efficiency and grades of energy

Some forms of energy are more convenient than others in certain situations. You can't run a spring-powered mechanical clock on a battery, and you can't run a battery-powered clock with mechanical energy. However, there is no fundamental physical principle that prevents you from converting 100% of the electrical energy in a battery into mechanical energy or vice-versa. More efficient motors and generators are being designed every year. In general, the laws of physics permit perfectly efficient conversion within a broad class of forms of energy.

Heat is different. Friction tends to convert other forms of energy into heat even in the best lubricated machines. When we slide a book on a table, friction brings it to a stop and converts all its kinetic energy into heat, but we never observe the opposite process, in which a book spontaneously converts heat energy into mechanical energy and starts moving! Roughly speaking, heat is different because it is disorganized. Scrambling an egg is easy. Unscrambling it is harder.

We summarize these observations by saying that heat is a lower grade of energy than other forms such as mechanical energy.

Of course it is possible to convert heat into other forms of energy such as mechanical energy, and that is what a car engine does with the heat created by exploding the air-gasoline mixture. But a car engine is a tremendously inefficient device, and a great deal of the heat is simply wasted through the radiator and the exhaust. Engineers have never succeeded in creating a perfectly efficient device for converting heat energy into mechanical energy, and we now know that this is because of a deeper physical principle that is far more basic than the design of an engine.

Last Update: 2011-01-31