Smoke rises from the stack of a train travelling through the mountains
Figure 12.1 A steam engine uses energy transfer by heat to do work. Tourists regularly ride this narrow-gauge, steam-engine train, near the San Juan Skyway (a part of the National Scenic Byways Program), between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. (Dennis Adams)

Engines Involve Energy Conversion

Energy can be transferred to or from a system, either through a temperature difference between it and another system (i.e., by heat) or by exerting a force through a distance (work). In these ways, energy can be converted into other forms of energy in other systems. For example, a car engine burns fuel for heat transfer into a gas. Work is done by the gas as it exerts a force through a distance by pushing a piston outward. This work converts the energy into a variety of other forms—into an increase in the car’s kinetic or gravitational potential energy; into electrical energy to run the spark plugs, radio, and lights; and back into stored energy in the car’s battery. But most of the thermal energy transferred by heat from the fuel burning in the engine does not do work on the gas. Instead, much of this energy is released into the surroundings at lower temperature (i.e., lost through heat), which is quite inefficient. Car engines are only about 25 to 30 percent efficient. This inefficiency leads to increased fuel costs, so there is great interest in improving fuel efficiency. However, it is common knowledge that modern gasoline engines cannot be made much more efficient. The same is true about the conversion to electrical energy in large power stations, whether they are coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear powered. Why is this the case?

The answer lies in the nature of heat. Basic physical laws govern how heat transfer for doing work takes place and limit the maximum possible efficiency of the process. This chapter will explore these laws as well their applications to everyday machines. These topics are part of thermodynamics—the study of heat and its relationship to doing work.