Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Cup of Heat, Monsieur?

Pierre-Simon de Laplace and Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier
thought that heat was an invisible liquid.
18th century physicists thought of heat as something much like electricity: an invisible fluid that could flow through other materials or soak into them. They named this hypothetical fluid ‘caloric,’ and it was thought to be a distinct form of material, like air or water, only different. If an object had absorbed a lot of caloric, like a sponge soaking up water, then it was hot. If the caloric drained out, the object cooled.

This was a sensible theory. We all know that objects can become electrically charged and that this changes their properties. A charged balloon can stick to the ceiling, or make your hair stand on end; a charged metal sphere can give you a zap. Electric current really is an invisible fluid, composed (most usually) of material particles called electrons. Most of the time they are bound up in atoms, but when they come loose they can flow into things, or out of them or through them. Things can become charged by soaking up extra electrons.

Soaking up electric charge. 
(Image by Wikimedia user Dtjrh2
used under Creative Commons license.)
In a similar way, it would seem, objects can also soak up heat. Hot objects may expand or cause burns, just as charged objects stick to ceilings or shock people. Heat flows from high to low temperatures, just as electricity flows from high voltage to low. Appealing as it is at this basic level, the analogy turns out to work well even in finer detail. Antoine Lavoisier and Pierre Laplace developed an extensive body of caloric theory that was able to explain heating and cooling and many other thermal phenomena with quantitative accuracy. 

So in the eighteenth century it only made sense to think of heat as something similar to electrical charge. In the following century, heat engines and electric motors would be developed in parallel, and engineers would still think of them in similar terms. Today again people are deciding whether to have a car powered by an electric motor instead of a combustion engine, and the differences seem to be ones of practical detail. 

Today we no longer believe that heat is a material fluid, however. Why not? It's not really as clear-cut an issue as textbooks often make it seem, because today our concept of matter is not as simple as it once was. We know that not even electrons are really these indestructible little specks of hard stuff: they can be created and destroyed in high-energy collisions. And in a lot of ways we still treat heat as if it were a material fluid.

The bottom line, though, is that even though electrons can be born and die, electric charge can't. If electrons appear or disappear they do so together with positrons, so that the net change in charge remains zero. The only way for an object to become charged is for charge to flow into it from elsewhere—or for opposite charge to flow out of the object. There is no way to simply create charge from stuff that is not charge. Heat, in contrast, can flow into or out of things—but that's not the only way to get heat. One can also create heat, without importing it or already having it. It's called friction.

Rub your hands together. Feel it? That's heat. 

You didn't just create any new material substance from nothing. Big Bangs and particle colliders aren't as easy as that. So heat is not a material fluid. What is it, then?

Whatever heat is, you've just made some. It's right there in your hands.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fire Glows

It's not just bright.
Humans discovered fire a long time ago, but for most of that time we only used it for warmth and light and cooking, rather as Bilbo Baggins used his magic ring for years just to avoid unwanted callers. Only in the 18th century did James Watt show up to play Gandalf, and reveal that our curious little trinket was the One Ring to rule them all. Fire has enormous power.

Even after centuries of technological progress since Watt, we still find it very hard to beat combustion as a source of power. Burning a tank of fuel releases enough energy to lift cargo all the way to the Moon, even with the horrible inefficiency of a rocket engine. Combustion provides energy, as one says, to burn. Why is fire such a tremendously greater power source than, say, clockwork springs or a windmill? I’ve never seen a clear answer to this question in any physics text, but I think I have found a succinct one of my own. 

Fire glows.
Light oscillates really fast.
The fact that fire glows demonstrates that fire is releasing energy from motions (of electrons in chemical bonds) with frequencies in the range of visible light. Those are very high frequencies, around 1014 cycles per second. As Planck taught us, energy is proportional to frequency. So if human energy needs are for motion at up to a few thousand RPMS, mere hundreds of cycles per second, combustion lets us tap energy resources on a scale greater by a factor of a million million. Combustion delivers so much energy, because molecular frequencies are so high.

This is what an engine somehow does.
It isn’t easy to gear all that power down by a factor of 1012 so we can use it, though. Electrons whir around in molecules far too fast for our eyes to follow. We can’t just throw a harness over them. Even if we could, they are very light in weight. They bounce off things, rather than dragging them along. To tap them for power, we need some clever way of gently bleeding off their enormous but very rapidly whirring energy, a tiny bit at a time.  There's more to it than just installing an awful lot of tiny gears. 

Getting fire to do work means transferring power across a huge frequency range. That's what thermodynamics is all about. The reason that thermodynamics doesn’t seem very much like the rest of physics is that energy transfer across a huge frequency range is an extreme case, in which certain otherwise obscure aspects of physics become very important. That makes them important in general, though, because high frequencies can deliver so much power. It's well worth learning how thermodynamics really works.

Raising Water by Fire

James Watt dramatically improved the steam engine, but he didn’t invent it. In his time, steam engines were already a practical and economical success. The machines of Thomas Newcomen and Thomas Savery had already begun the new era in human technology. 

Savery had a head for marketing as well as for steam. In 1702 he produced a pamphlet advertising his device as “An Engine to Raise Water By Fire”. His description may have been poetic, but it was literally exact. His engine pumped water by burning coal. Its killer application was draining coal mines. 

Humans may have discovered fire in distant prehistoric times, but the really useful thing about fire was only discovered in the 18th century. Never mind cooking or smelting metal or scaring wolves: fire can raise an awful lot of water. And if you can raise water, you can do pretty much anything, because raising water means you can exert force.

Savery’s and Newcomen’s engines were crude and simple, and by that I don’t mean that they were primitively made, rattling too much or leaking steam. They were just stupid designs, compared to Watt’s machines. They didn’t even use steam pressure to actually do their work, but just let the steam balance atmospheric pressure. Then they condensed the steam, by shooting in cold water, and let the suddenly unbalanced atmospheric pressure do the work. Savery’s engine didn’t even turn any moving parts, but just sucked water through pipes. It wasn’t so much more than a proof of concept, like the aeolipile.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and it’s not really fair to call Savery and Newcomen stupid. Watt’s proper steam-pressure engines also needed stronger boilers. The point is that even the crudest engines were such a quantum leap in power technology, compared to wind, water, or animal power, that they rapidly changed the world. In effect they turned lumps of coal into unprecedentedly huge amounts of practical work. Up until 1775, the Russian navy had been using two enormous windmills to drain its dry docks at Kronstadt; each time they drained the docks in order to work on a ship, the draining job took a year. When they installed a single Newcomen engine, it did the job in two weeks.

With coal-fired steam engines, the human capacity to exert physical force suddenly soared. Even today, the biggest problem with changing to power sources other than combustion is that fire can provide so much more power than, say, sunlight or wind. We humans keep thinking wistfully about switching away from combustion, to some form of clean energy, but we really want to maintain our current energetic lifestyle. We're like a big city lawyer who wants to quit the firm and become a social worker, but also wants to keep up the mortgage payments.

Why is fire so very good for raising water? I have some thoughts on this, based on the fact that fire glows.