second law of thermodynamics | Thermal Physics
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Heat Engines , Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The first law of thermodynamics, which we studied, is a statement of conservation of energy, generalized to include internal energy. This law states that a change in internal energy in a system can occur as a result of energy transfer by heat or by work, or by both. The law makes no distinction between the results of heat and the results of work—either heat or work can cause a change in internal energy. However, an important distinction between the two is not evident from the first law. One manifestation of this distinction is that it is impossible to convert internal energy completely to mechanical energy by taking a substance through a thermodynamic cycle such as in a heat engine, a device we study in this chapter.

Although the first law of thermodynamics is very important, it makes no distinction between processes that occur spontaneously and those that do not. However, we find that only certain types of energy-conversion and energy-transfer processes actually take place. The second law of thermodynamics, which we study in this chapter, establishes which processes do and which do not occur in nature. The following are examples of processes that proceed in only one direction, governed by the second law:

  • When two objects at different temperatures are placed in thermal contact with each other, energy always flows by heat from the warmer to the cooler, never from the cooler to the warmer.
  • A rubber ball dropped to the ground bounces several times and eventually comes to rest, but a ball lying on the ground never begins bouncing on its own.
  • An oscillating pendulum eventually comes to rest because of collisions with air molecules and friction at the point of suspension. The mechanical energy of the system is converted to internal energy in the air, the pendulum, and the suspension; the reverse conversion of energy never occurs.

All these processes are irreversible—that is, they are processes that occur naturally in one direction only. No irreversible process has ever been observed to run backward—if it were to do so, it would violate the second law of thermodynamics.
From an engineering standpoint, perhaps the most important implication of the second law is the limited efficiency of heat engines. The second law states that a machine capable of continuously converting internal energy completely to other forms of energy in a cyclic process cannot be constructed.

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