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.