Triple Expansion Steam Engine

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 6th, 2013

Technology 101

Pressure and Temperature have a Direct Relationship while Pressure and Volume have an Inverse Relationship

For much of human existence we used our own muscles to push things.  Which limited the work we could do.  Early river transport were barges of low capacity that we pushed along with a pole.  We’d stand on the barge and place the pole into the water and into the river bed.  Then push the pole away from us.  To get the boat to move in the other direction.

In more developed areas we may have cleared a pathway alongside the river.  And pulled our boats with animal power.  Of course, none of this helped us cross an ocean.  Only sail did that.  Where we captured the wind in sails.  And the wind pushed our ships across the oceans.  Then we started to understand our environment more.  And noticed relationships between physical properties.  Such as the ideal gas law equation:

Pressure = (n X R X Temperature)/Volume

In a gas pressure is determined my multiplying together ‘n’ and ‘R’ and temperature then dividing this number by volume.  Where ‘n’ is the amount of moles of the gas.  And ‘R’ is the constant 8.3145 m3·Pa/(mol·K).  For our purposes you can ignore ‘n’ and ‘R’.  It’s the relationship between pressure, temperature and volume that we want to focus on.  Which we can see in the ideal gas law equation.  Pressure and temperature have a direct relationship.  That is, if one rises so does the other.  If one falls so does the other.  While pressure and volume have an inverse relationship.  If volume decreases pressure increases.  If volume increases pressure decreases.  These properties prove to be very useful.  Especially if we want to push things.

Once the Piston traveled its Full Stroke on a Locomotive the Spent Steam vented into the Atmosphere 

So what gas can produce a high pressure that we can make relatively easy?  Steam.  Which we can make simply by boiling water.  And if we can harness this steam in a fixed vessel the pressure will rise to become strong enough to push things for us.  Operating a boiler was a risky profession, though.  As a lot of boiler operators died when the steam they were producing rose beyond safe levels.  Causing the boiler to explode like a bomb.

Early locomotives would burn coal or wood to boil water into steam.  The steam pressure was so great that it would push a piston while at the same time moving a connecting rod connected to the locomotive’s wheel.  Once the piston traveled its full stroke the spent steam vented into the atmosphere.  Allowing the pressure of that steam to dissipate safely into the air.  Of course doing this required the locomotive to stop at water towers along the way to keep taking on fresh water to boil into steam. 

Not all steam engines vented their used steam (after it expanded and gave up its energy) into the atmosphere.  Most condensed the low-pressure, low-temperature steam back into water.  Piping it (i.e., the condensate) back to the boiler to boil again into steam.  By recycling the used steam back into water eliminated the need to have water available to feed into the boiler.  Reducing non-revenue weight in steam ships.  And making more room available for fuel to travel greater distances.  Or to carry more revenue-producing cargo.

The Triple Expansion Steam Engine reduced the Expansion and Temperature Drop in each Cylinder

Pressure pushes the pistons in the steam engine.  And by the ideal gas law equation we see that the higher the temperature the higher the pressure.  As well as the corollary.  The lower the temperature the lower the pressure.  And one other thing.  As the volume increases the temperature falls.  So as the pressure in the steam pushes the piston the volume inside the cylinder increases.  Which lowers the temperature of the steam.  And the temperature of the piston and cylinder walls.  So when fresh steam from the boiler flows into this cylinder the cooler temperature of the piston and cylinder walls will cool the temperature of the steam.  Condensing some of it.  Reducing the pressure of the steam.  Which will push the piston with less force.  Reducing the efficiency of the engine.

There was a way to improve the efficiency of the steam engine.  By reducing the temperature drop during expansion (i.e., when it moves the piston).  They did this by raising the temperature of the steam.  And breaking down the expansion phase into multiple parts.  Such as in the triple expansion steam engine.  Where steam from the boiler entered the first cylinder.  Which is the smallest cylinder.  After it pushed the piston the spent steam still had a lot of energy in it looking to expand further.  Which it did in the second cylinder.  As the exhaust port of the first cylinder is piped into the intake port of the second cylinder.

The second cylinder is bigger than the first cylinder.  For the steam entering this cylinder is a lower-pressure and lower-temperature steam than that entering the first cylinder.  And needs a larger area to push against to match the down-stroke force on the first piston.  After it pushes this piston there is still energy left in that steam looking to expand.  Which it did in the third and largest cylinder.  After it pushed the third piston this low-pressure and low-temperature steam flowed into the condenser.  Where cooling removed what energy (i.e., temperature above the boiling point of water) was left in it.  Turning it back into water again.  Which was then pumped back to the boiler.  To be boiled into steam again.

By restricting the amount of expansion in each cylinder the triple expansion steam engine reduced the amount the temperature fell in each cylinder.  Allowing more of the heat go into pushing the piston.  And less of it go into raising the temperature of the piston and cylinder walls.  Greatly increasing the efficiency of the engine.  Making it the dominant maritime engine during the era of steam.

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