We decide to obey or break laws of man, whereas we struggle to understand nature’s laws. Scientists of 18th and 19th centuries work to comprehend nature’s law regulating heat flow mechanics to improve steam engine efficiency.
In 1867 Rudolf Clausius notes relationship between heat, work, temperature and energy. He writes recent standard form of thermodynamic first law. This version succinctly expresses energy conservation.
Energy conservation means neither creation nor destruction of heat energy, but transfer and/or conversion to other energy forms. To work, Clausius’ first law expression requires achieving endpoint conditions of thermal equilibrium (i.e., uniform temperature).
As Paul Cassak observes, “Suppose you heat up a balloon. The first law of thermodynamics tells you how much the balloon expands and how much hotter the gas inside the balloon gets. The key is that the total amount of energy causing the balloon to expand and the gas to get hotter is the same as the amount of heat you put into the balloon. The first law has been used to describe many things — including how refrigerators and car engines work. It’s one of the pillars of physics.”
However, Clausius’ first law expression fails to describe systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Yet, Cassak and others in February report on using phase space mapping experiment to model plasmas far from equilibrium by reformulating first law of thermodynamics.
Duncan Lorimer discerns, “There aren’t many laws of physics — Newton’s laws, the laws of electricity and magnetism, the three laws of thermodynamics, and the laws of quantum mechanics — to take one of these laws that has been around over 150 years and improve on it is a major achievement.”
Work of Cassak and others supplies insights on thermodynamics previously unavailable. It will energize fields ranging from circuitry and quantum computing to space weather. It’s time for physicists to shout “Eureka!”
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