What’s a combustion chamber?

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The combustion chamber is where fuel is burned in an engine. In internal combustion engines, fuel is burned above the pistons, while external combustion engines burn fuel in a separate space. Internal combustion engines are efficient and used in mobile vehicles, while external combustion engines were used in steamships and trains. Both types of engines convert chemical energy to mechanical work, but cannot convert all energy due to heat loss.

A combustion chamber is the area in an engine where fuel is burned. In an internal combustion engine, fuel is burned in the space directly above its pistons. Internal combustion engines are used extensively in small mobile vehicles. In the external combustion engine, the fuel is burned in a space physically separate from its cylinder walls. External combustion engines were used extensively in the 19th century to power large steamships and trains.

The combustion chamber of an internal combustion engine is partially bounded by the surface of a piston. When fuel is ignited in this combustion chamber, the hot gases can act directly on the piston to push it down. As the gas pressure is high, it expands rapidly to follow the piston and keep pushing it. When the gas pressure is low again, the gas has pushed the piston to its bottom position. A crankshaft connected to the pistons will spin as the pistons swing.

A popular application of the internal combustion engine is to power mobile vehicles, such as automobiles, boats, and propeller-driven airplanes. The heat in an internal combustion chamber is created within the engine itself, so it can act rapidly on the engine’s pistons. This relative efficiency allows internal combustion engines to be smaller and lighter than their external combustion counterparts. For this reason, internal combustion engines are widely used for mobile applications with relatively low power requirements.

The steam engine, on the other hand, is an external combustion engine. This means that the combustion chamber is on the outside of the cylinders. External combustion engines require heat transfer through the solid walls of the engine. The transfer of heat through a stationary solid object is called conduction. Conduction can be a slow process when temperature differences are small, so steam engines generally use large combustion chambers that produce a lot of heat.

In the steam engine, coal is burned in a combustion chamber known as a firebox to produce heat. The heat flows through the walls of another water-filled container known as a boiler. When water boils, high pressure steam is temporarily directed into one or more cylinders to act on a piston. The linear motion of the piston is converted to the circular motion of a crankshaft to drive the engine.

Both internal and external combustion engines are forms of the reciprocating engine. These engines ultimately convert chemical energy into mechanical work, with heat being the intermediate form of energy. Even under ideal conditions, they cannot convert 100% of the stored chemical energy into mechanical work because some heat always escapes the system.

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