A Carnot heat engine is a hypothetical engine that operates on the reversible Carnot cycle. The basic model for this engine was developed by Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot in 1824. The Carnot engine model was graphically expanded upon by Benoît Paul Émile Clapeyron in 1834 and mathematically elaborated upon by Rudolf Clausius in the 1850s and 60s from which the concept of entropy emerged.
Every thermodynamic system exists in a particular state. A thermodynamic cycle occurs when a system is taken through a series of different states, and finally returned to its initial state. In the process of going through this cycle, the system may perform work on its surroundings, thereby acting as a heat engine.
A heat engine acts by transferring energy from a warm region to a cool region of space and, in the process, converting some of that energy to mechanical work. The cycle may also be reversed. The system may be worked upon by an external force, and in the process, it can transfer thermal energy from a cooler system to a warmer one, thereby acting as a refrigerator or heat pump rather than a heat engine.
In the adjacent diagram, from Carnot's 1824 work, Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, there are "two bodies A and B, kept each at a constant temperature, that of A being higher than that of B. These two bodies, to which we can give or from which we can remove the heat without causing their temperatures to vary, exercise the functions of two unlimited reservoirs of caloric. We will call the first the furnace and the second the refrigerator.” Carnot then explains how we can obtain motive power, i.e. “work”, by carrying a certain quantity of heat from body A to body B.
The previous image shows the original piston-and-cylinder diagram used by Carnot in discussing his ideal engine. The figure at right shows a block diagram of a generic heat engine, such as the Carnot engine. In the diagram, the “working body” (system), a term introduced by Clausius in 1850, can be any fluid or vapor body through which heat Q can be introduced or transmitted to produce work. Carnot had postulated that the fluid body could be any substance capable of expansion, such as vapor of water, vapor of alcohol, vapor of mercury, a permanent gas, or air, etc. Although, in these early years, engines came in a number of configurations, typically QH was supplied by a boiler, wherein water was boiled over a furnace; QC was typically a stream of cold flowing water in the form of a condenser located on a separate part of the engine. The output work W here is the movement of the piston as it is used to turn a crank-arm, which was then typically used to turn a pulley so to lift water out of flooded salt mines. Carnot defined work as “weight lifted through a height”.
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