External heat engine

An external heat engine (EHE) refers to any engine that receives its heat from a source other than the fluid that makes the engine work. The most common type of EHE is the external combustion engine, which is used in many power plant designs.

External heat engines are generally steam engines, and they differ from internal combustion engines in that the heat source is separate from the fluid that does work.[1] For example, an external combustion engine would use a flame to heat water into steam, then using the steam to turn a turbine. This is different from internal combustion, like in a car engine, where the gasoline ignites inside a piston, does work, and then is expelled.

Figure 1. A boiling water reactor, which is an external heat engine.[2]

All external combustion engines are external heat engines. There are EHEs, like solar thermal power plants, nuclear power plants, and geothermal power plants, that are not external combustion engines. Despite this, external heat engines, like nuclear reactors, are sometimes referred to as external combustion engines.[3]

External combustion engine

External combustion engines are the most common form of external heat engines, because of their use in power plants. An external combustion engine is unique from other EHEs because it requires a fuel to undergo combustion to create the heat that is used for work.

External combustion engines are no longer used in transportation, as mobile designs are not efficient enough, but they continue to be used in power plants.[4] For example, a natural gas power plant boils water into steam to turn a turbine, creating electricity. The external combustion design means that the natural gas does not come in direct contact with the water, and the engine still uses the immense amount of energy emitted to do useful work. A coal-fired power plant works in much the same way, where coal is taken into the plant from the mine and burned in a boiler. Pipes send water into the boiler, and the burning coal boils the water, creating steam, which turns a turbine and creates electricity.



  1. C. Foundation, "External Combustion Engines", CK-12 Foundation, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.ck12.org/physics/external-combustion-engines/lesson/External-Combustion-Engines-MS-PS/. [Accessed: 07- Jun- 2018]
  2. NRC. (September 3, 2015). Boiling Water Reactor [Online], Available: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/students/animated-bwr.html
  3. This terminology is inconsistent within the energy industry. The Energy Education team has decided to refer to the general group of all heat engines that create work by heating an external working fluid as an external heat engine. This term is not yet in common but after extensive deliberation the decision was made that it was the most sensible name for these systems. External combustion engines are of course an important class of external heat engines.
  4. "Difference Between Internal and External Combustion Engine", Pediaa.Com, 2018. [Online]. Available: http://pediaa.com/difference-between-internal-and-external-combustion-engine/. [Accessed: 07- Jun- 2018]

Authors and Editors

Bethel Afework, Allison Campbell, Jordan Hanania, Braden Heffernan, James Jenden, Jason Donev
Last updated: June 25, 2018
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