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Sourav s Grade:

In a carnot engine,

1. Is the gas initially at a temperature lower than that of the source??

2.If not(ie..they are at same T) then how can heat flow between them??

3.If yes is it like this that first the gas absorbs heat from source and equalise its temperature with that of the source and then expand isothermally at this T ???

4. Similarly , in adiabatic expansion, how can the gas expand without any heat supplied???


5 years ago

Answers : (1)

879 Points

Dear student,

All standard heat engines (steam, gasoline, diesel) work by supplying heat to a gas, the gas then expands in a cylinder and pushes a piston to do its work.  The catch is that the heat and/or the gas must somehow then be dumped out of the cylinder to get ready for the next cycle.


Our aim in this lecture is to figure out just how efficient such a heat engine can be: what’s the most work we can possibly get for a given amount of fuel?  We’ll examine here the simplest cyclical model: an ideal gas enclosed in a cylinder, with external connections to supply and take away heat, and a frictionless piston for the gas to perform (and to absorb) mechanical work:



The efficiency question was first posed—and solved—by Sadi Carnot in 1820, not long after steam engines had become efficient enough to begin replacing water wheels, at that time the main power sources for industry.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, Carnot visualized the heat engine as a kind of water wheel in which heat (the “fluid”) dropped from a high temperature to a low temperature, losing “potential energy” which the engine turned into work done, just like a water wheel. 


(Historical Note: actually, Carnot thought at the time that heat was a fluid—he believed in the Caloric Theory.  Remarkably, the naïve “potential energy of a caloric fluid” approach gives exactly the right answer for the efficiency of an ideal engine!  Carnot accepted that there was an absolute zero of temperature, from which he figured out that on being cooled to absolute zero, the caloric fluid would give up all its heat energy.  Therefore, if it falls only half way to absolute zero from its beginning temperature, it will give up half its heat, and an engine taking in heat at T and shedding it at ½T will be utilizing half the possible heat, and be 50% efficient.  Picture a water wheel that takes in water at the top of a waterfall, but lets it out halfway down.  So, the efficiency of an ideal engine operating between two temperatures will be equal to the fraction of the temperature drop towards absolute zero that the heat undergoes.  This turns out to be exactly correct, even though the reasoning is based on a false model.)


The water wheel analogy proved to be useful in another way: Carnot knew that the most efficient water wheels were those that operated smoothly, the water went into the buckets at the top from the same level, it didn’t fall into them through any height, and didn’t splash around.  In the idealized limit of a frictionless water wheel, with gentle flow on and off the wheel, such a machine would be reversible—if the wheel is run backwards by power supplied from the outside, so it raises water back up, it will take the same power that the wheel was itself delivering in normal operation. This idealized water wheel is clearly perfectly efficient, so the analogs of zero friction and gentle flow are what we need in the perfect heat engine.


Getting friction as low as possible is obviously necessary, but what, exactly, is “gentle flow” in the heat engine?  For the water wheel, it meant having water at the top flow smoothly into buckets at the same height, no wasteful drop that would lose potential energy with no gain.  For the heat engine, the analog is to have heat flow from the heat supply into the engine with no drop in temperature. In a real engine, there must of course be a slight drop in temperature for the heat to flow at all (just as there is for a real water wheel), but this has to be minimized. 


So, as the heat is supplied and the gas expands, the temperature of the gas must stay the same as that of the heat supply (the “heat reservoir”): the gas is expanding isothermally.  Similarly, it must contract isothermally later in the cycle as it sheds heat. 


To figure out the efficiency, we need to track the engine through a complete cycle, finding out how much work it does, how much heat is taken in from the fuel, and how much heat is dumped in getting ready for the next cycle.  You might want to look at the flashlet to get the picture at this point: the cycle has four steps, an isothermal expansion as heat is absorbed, followed by an adiabatic expansion, then an isothermal contraction as heat is shed, finally an adiabatic contraction to the original configuration.  We’ll take it one step at a time.

5 years ago
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