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.