How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Page 2 of 3 (24 Questions and Answers)

578. How does a steam engine work? — MP, New Fairfield, CT
Like the internal combustion engines used in automobiles, a steam engine is a type of heat engine—a device that diverts some of the heat flowing from a hotter object to a colder object and that turns that heat into useful work. The fraction of heat that can be converted to work is governed by the laws of thermodynamics and increases with the temperature difference between the hotter and colder objects. In the case of the steam engine, the hotter the steam and the colder the outside air, the more efficient the engine is at converting heat into work.

A typical steam engine has a piston that moves back and forth inside a cylinder. Hot, high-pressure steam is produced in a boiler and this steam enters the cylinder through a valve. Once inside the cylinder, the steam pushes outward on every surface, including the piston. The steam pushes the piston out of the cylinder, doing mechanical work on the piston and allowing that piston to do mechanical work on machinery attached to it. The expanding steam transfers some of its thermal energy to this machinery, so the steam becomes cooler as the machinery operates.

But before the piston actually leaves the steam engine's cylinder, the valve stops the flow of steam and opens the cylinder to the outside air. The piston can then reenter the cylinder easily. In many cases, steam is allowed to enter the other end of the cylinder so that the steam pushes the piston back to its original position. Once the piston is back at its starting point, the valve again admits high-pressure steam to the cylinder and the whole cycle repeats. Overall, heat is flowing from the hot boiler to the cool outside air and some of that heat is being converted into mechanical work by the moving piston.

616. How does an internal combustion engine work? — RT, Kitchener, Ontario
An internal combustion engine burns a mixture of fuel and air in an enclosed space. This space is formed by a cylinder that's sealed at one end and a piston that slides in and out of that cylinder. Two or more valves allow the fuel and air to enter the cylinder and for the gases that form when the fuel and air burn to leave the cylinder. As the piston slides in and out of the cylinder, the enclosed space within the cylinder changes its volume. The engine uses this changing volume to extract energy from the burning mixture.

The process begins when the engine pulls the piston out of the cylinder, expanding the enclosed space and allowing fuel and air to flow into that space through a valve. This motion is called the intake stroke. Next, the engine squeezes the fuel and air mixture tightly together by pushing the piston into the cylinder in what is called the compression stroke. At the end of the compression stroke, with the fuel and air mixture squeezed as tightly as possible, the spark plug at the sealed end of the cylinder fires and ignites the mixture. The hot burning fuel has an enormous pressure and it pushes the piston strongly out of the cylinder. This power stroke is what provides power to the car that's attached to the engine. Finally, the engine squeezes the burned gas out of the cylinder through another valve in the exhaust stroke. These four strokes repeat over and over again to power the car. To provide more steady power, and to make sure that there is enough energy to carry the piston through the intake, compression, and exhaust strokes, most internal combustion engines have at least four cylinders (and pistons). That way, there is always at least one cylinder going through the power stroke and it can carry the other cylinders through the non-power strokes.

709. Why are there pistons in an engine? — T, Enola, PA
The pistons in a gasoline engine compress the fuel and air mixture before ignition and then extract energy from the burned gases after ignition. When the engine is operating, each piston travels in and out of a cylinder with one closed end many times a second. The piston makes four different strokes during its travels. In the first or "intake" stroke, the piston travels away from the closed end of the cylinder and draws the fuel and air mixture into the cylinder through an opened valve. During the second or "compression" stroke, the piston travels toward the closed end of the cylinder and compresses the fuel and air mixture to high pressure, density, and temperature. The spark plug now ignites the fuel and air mixture and it burns. During the third or "power" stroke, the piston travels away from the closed end of the cylinder and the expanding gases do work on the piston, providing it with the energy that propels the car forward. During the fourth or "exhaust" stroke, the piston travels toward the closed end of the cylinder and pushes the burned gases out of the cylinder through another opened valve.

874. What will be the source of energy for vehicles 50 years from now? — AW, Karachi, Pakistan
When the earth's petroleum supply has been depleted to point where it becomes too precious and expensive to burn, electric vehicles will probably take over. While it's possible to synthesize chemical fuels, I don't think it will be worth the trouble. The bigger question is where the electricity needed to charge the batteries will come from. I'll bet on solar power. Right now, electric cars don't save fossil fuels or keep the air significantly cleaner because the electricity those cars use is obtained by burning fossil fuels. But the electric cars of the future will probably obtain their electric power from the sun. Nuclear fission and fusion are also possibilities, but fission power has its drawbacks and its not clear when or even if fusion power will be available.

995. How much electric current is there in an automobile spark plug? — DG, Brooklyn, NY
Without measuring it directly, I would guess that the current passing through a spark plug during a spark is about 10 milliamperes. I base that guess both on a calculation—assuming sensible values for the energy, voltage, and duration of the spark—and on my experience with electric sparks. If I have a chance to measure the current directly—I have the equipment but not the time—I'll put a more specific value here.

1091. What is the difference between internal and external combustion engines?
External combustion engines burn a fuel outside of the engine and produce a hot working fluid that then powers the engine. The classic example of an external combustion engine is a steam engine. Internal combustion engines burn fuel directly in the engine and use the fuel and the gases resulting from its combustion as the working fluid that powers the engine. An automobile engine is a fine example of an internal combustion engine.

1119. I understand that for a steam engine to produce useful work, you need a difference in temperatures. My question is whether the difference in temperatures between cold glacier ice and the warmer air could be used to drive a steam engine and generate electricity. — LNH & AJH, Juneau, Alaska
As you clearly recognize, any heat engine—a machine that converts thermal energy into work—can only do its job while heat is flowing from a hotter object to a colder object. That limitation is imposed by the second law of thermodynamics—a statistical law that observes that the disorder of an isolated system can never decrease. A heat engine's theoretical efficiency at turning thermal energy into work improves as the temperature difference between its hotter and colder objects increases. Since the air temperature is hotter than the glacier temperature, there is the possibility to convert some of the air's thermal energy into work as heat flows from the air to the glacier. In short, what you suggest could be done.

Unfortunately, most practical heat engines work best when the hotter object is really hot. For example, a steam engine works best when the hotter object is hot enough to produce very high temperature, high pressure steam. To operate a steam engine with outside air as the hotter object and cold ice as the colder object, the steam engine would have to operate at very low pressure. In fact, it would operate well below atmospheric pressure in a carefully sealed environment. Steam might not even be the best choice for a working fluid—you might do better with a refrigerant such as the various Freon replacements. In effect, your heat engine would be an air conditioner run backward—providing electric power rather than consuming it. Although this could be done, it would probably not be cost effective. The heat exchangers needed to obtain heat from the air and to deliver most of that heat to the glacier, as well as all the machinery of the heat engine itself, would probably make the electricity you generated too expensive. Just because something can be done doesn't mean that it's worth doing. Until other sources of energy become more expensive, this one won't pay for itself.

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.

1188. Could you suspend a car on hot air produced below it? — RM, Toronto, Ontario
For the buoyancy of hot air to suspend a car, you would need a lot of it—in effect you would have to turn the car into a hot air balloon. That's because the lifting force experienced by hot air is really supplied by the cooler air around it and this upward buoyant force is proportional to the volume of hot air being lifted. Since a car is pretty heavy, the volume of hot air required will be enormous.

However, if you trap the air underneath the car, so that its volume can't increase, and then heat that air, its pressure will rise. This increased pressure below the car would produce an overall upward pressure force on the car and could support the car's weight. In effect, you would be creating a ground-effect hovercraft in which the elevated pressure of trapped hot air supports the weight of the vehicle. But it would be easier and less energy-intensive to pump air underneath your hovercraft with a big fan. That's what most ground-effect vehicles do. They pack extra air molecules underneath themselves and then allow those molecules to support their weight. Furthermore, because air molecules are always leaking out from beneath the vehicle, you'll need a fan to replace them anyway.

1189. I heard some time ago about a car that uses microwaves to heat the air in front of it so that it creates a vacuum. The relatively higher pressure behind then pushes it forward. Is this possible? — RM, Toronto, Ontario
Even if microwaves were effective at heating air, which they are not, this heating would not propel the car forward. The air in front of the car would become hot, but its pressure would remain almost unchanged. Instead, the air would expand to occupy a larger volume and would then be lifted upward by the cooler air around it ("hot air rises"). Cooler air would flow in to replace the escaping hot air and the car would simply sit there with a steady stream of hot air rising in front of it.
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