How Everything Works
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Question 1126

How much steam is required to produce a unit of power? — DKB, Dubai
There is no easy answer to this question, but for an interesting reason. First, "power" is a measure of energy per time (e.g. joules per second or BTUs per hour) so any answer would have to involve the amount of steam per time (e.g. kilograms per second or cubic meters per hour). But even recognizing that requirement, I can't answer the question. First, I'd need to know the temperature of the steam. The hotter the steam, the more thermal energy it contains and the more energy it could provide. For more complicated reasons, I'd also have to know the pressure of the steam. But there is a fourth issue: even knowing the amount of steam involved and the temperature and pressure of that steam, the amount of useful energy that can be extracted from that steam depends on the existence of a colder object. You can't turn thermal energy—the type of energy that steam contains—directly into useful work or into electric energy in a continuous manner. You must use the steam in a "heat engine", converting a fraction of its thermal energy into work as that thermal energy flows as heat from the hot steam to a colder object. This requirement is established by the laws of thermodynamics and there is no way to get around it. The hotter the steam and the colder the object, the larger the fraction of the steam's thermal energy you can convert to work. However, there is no way to convert all of the steam's thermal energy into work continuously.

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