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External Combustion Engines

Early inventions used to convert heat energy to kinetic energy with low efficiency.

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To Infinity and Beyond

To Infinity and Beyond

Credit: Laura Guerin
Source: CK-12 Foundation
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The device shown in this image is a homemade version of a simple engine, called a Stirling engine. It’s a type of external combustion engine. Invented in 1816, the Stirling engine was never as widely used as the steam engine or the later internal combustion engine. However, today it may be making a comeback.

The Back Story

  • External combustion engines have been around for hundreds of years. Starting in the late 1700s, external combustion steam engines provided most of the power for the Industrial Revolution. They powered factories, trains, and ships.
  • During the 20th century, the internal combustion engine largely replaced the external combustion steam engine. Internal combustion engines now power cars, trucks, and most other modes of transportation.
  • Surprisingly, Stirling engines never went away entirely, and they are still used today. An exciting new application of Stirling engines has even been developed by NASA.
  • Credit: globballyoptimistic
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27938200@N06/2614377633/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    A simple Stirling engine [Figure2]

  • To see a simple, homemade Stirling engine in action, watch the following video. Also, read the text about the video, explaining how the Stirling engine works.


Explore More

At the links below, learn more about Stirling engines. Then answer the questions that follow.

  1. How does a Stirling engine work? Where does combustion take place, and how is the heat used to move the parts of the engine?
  2. What are advantages of Stirling engines relative to steam engines?
  3. How is NASA planning to use Stirling engines?
  4. What are some other uses of Stirling engines, both historically and today?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Laura Guerin; Source: CK-12 Foundation; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: globballyoptimistic; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27938200@N06/2614377633/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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