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....

Heat engines

i/ The temperature difference between the hot and cold parts of the air can be used to extract mechanical energy, for example with a fan blade that spins because of the rising hot air currents.

Heat may be more useful in some forms than in other, i.e., there are different grades of heat energy. In the figure above, the difference in temperature can be used to extract mechanical work with a fan blade. This principle is used in power plants, where steam is heated by burning oil or by nuclear reactions, and then allowed to expand through a turbine which has cooler steam on the other side. On a smaller scale, there is a Christmas toy that consists of a small propeller spun by the hot air rising from a set of candles, very much like the setup shown in the figure.

j/ If the temperature of the air is first allowed to become uniform, then no mechanical energy can be extracted. The same amount of heat energy is present, but it is no longer accessible for doing mechanical work.

In the figure j, however, no mechanical work can be extracted because there is no difference in temperature. Although the air in j has the same total amount of energy as the air in i, the heat in j is a lower grade of energy, since none of it is accessible for doing mechanical work.

In general, we define a heat engine as any device that takes heat from a reservoir of hot matter, extracts some of the heat energy to do mechanical work, and expels a lesser amount of heat into a reservoir of cold matter. The efficiency of a heat engine equals the amount of useful work extracted, W, divided by the amount of energy we had to pay for in order to heat the hot reservoir. This latter amount of heat is the same as the amount of heat the engine extracts from the high-temperature reservoir, QH. (The letter Q is the standard notation for a transfer of heat.) By conservation of energy, we have QH = W + QL, where QL is the amount of heat expelled into the low-temperature reservoir, so the efficiency of a heat engine, W/QH, can be rewritten as

It turns out that there is a particular type of heat engine, the Carnot engine, which, although not 100% efficient, is more efficient than any other. The grade of heat energy in a system can thus be unambiguously defined in terms of the amount of heat energy in it that cannot be extracted, even by a Carnot engine. How can we build the most efficient possible engine? Let's start with an unnecessarily inefficient engine like a car engine and see how it could be improved. The radiator and exhaust expel hot gases, which is a waste of heat energy. These gases are cooler than the exploded air-gas mixture inside the cylinder, but hotter than the air that surrounds the car. We could thus improve the engine's efficiency by adding an auxiliary heat engine to it, which would operate with the first engine's exhaust as its hot reservoir and the air as its cold reservoir. In general, any heat engine that expels heat at an intermediate temperature can be made more efficient by changing it so that it expels heat only at the temperature of the cold reservoir.

Similarly, any heat engine that absorbs some energy at an intermediate temperature can be made more efficient by adding an auxiliary heat engine to it which will operate between the hot reservoir and this intermediate temperature.

The beginning of the first expansion stroke, in which the working gas is kept in thermal equilibrium with the hot reservoir. THThe beginning of the second expansion stroke, in which the working gas is thermally insulated. The working gas cools because it is doing work on the piston and thus losing energy.
The beginning of the first compression stroke. The working gas begins the stroke at the same temperature as the cold reservoir, and remains in thermal contact with it the whole time. The engine does negative work.The beginning of the second compression stroke, in which mechanical work is absorbed, heating the working gas back up to TH.

Based on these arguments, we define a Carnot engine as a heat engine that absorbs heat only from the hot reservoir and expels it only into the cold reservoir. Figures k-n show a realization of a Carnot engine using a piston in a cylinder filled with a monoatomic ideal gas. This gas, known as the working fluid, is separate from, but exchanges energy with, the hot and cold reservoirs. It turns out that this particular Carnot engine has an efficiency given by

where TL is the temperature of the cold reservoir and TH is the temperature of the hot reservoir. (A proof of this fact is given in my book Simple Nature, which you can download for free.)

Even if you do not wish to dig into the details of the proof, the basic reason for the temperature dependence is not so hard to understand. Useful mechanical work is done on strokes k and l, in which the gas expands. The motion of the piston is in the same direction as the gas's force on the piston, so positive work is done on the piston. In strokes m and n, however, the gas does negative work on the piston. We would like to avoid this negative work, but we must design the engine to perform a complete cycle. Luckily the pressures during the compression strokes are lower than the ones during the expansion strokes, so the engine doesn't undo all its work with every cycle. The ratios of the pressures are in proportion to the ratios of the temperatures, so if TL is 20% of TH, the engine is 80% efficient.

We have already proved that any engine that is not a Carnot engine is less than optimally efficient, and it is also true that all Carnot engines operating between a given pair of temperatures TH and TL have the same efficiency. Thus a Carnot engine is the most efficient possible heat engine.

Last Update: 2011-01-31