The Stirling engine is a heat engine that is vastly different from the internal-combustion engine in your car. Invented by Robert Stirling in 1816, the Stirling engine has the potential to be much more efficient than a gasoline or diesel engine. But today, Stirling engines are used only in some very specialized applications, like in submarines or auxiliary power generators for yachts, where quiet operation is important. Although there hasn't been a successful mass-market application for the Stirling engine, some very high-power inventors are working on it.
A Stirling engine uses the Stirling cycle, which is unlike the cycles used in internal-combustion engines.
- The gasses used inside a Stirling engine never leave the engine. There are no exhaust valves that vent high-pressure gasses, as in a gasoline or diesel engine, and there are no explosions taking place. Because of this, Stirling engines are very quiet.
- The Stirling cycle uses an external heat source, which could be anything from gasoline to solar energy to the heat produced by decaying plants. No combustion takes place inside the cylinders of the engine.
There are hundreds of ways to put together a Stirling engine. In this article, we'll learn about the Stirling cycle and see how two different configurations of this engine work.