What Is an External Combustion Engine?- Their Example

What is External Combustion Engine?

An external combustion engine is a heat engine where an (internal) working fluid is heated by combustion of an external source, through the engine wall or a heat exchanger. The fluid then, by expanding and acting on the mechanism of the engine produces motion and usable work.

The fluid is then cooled, compressed, and reused in a closed cycle. Unlike the steam engine’s use of water in both its liquid and gaseous phases as the working fluid, the Stirling engine encloses a fixed quantity of permanently gaseous fluid such as air or helium.

As in all heat engines, the general cycle consists of compressing cool gas, heating the gas, expanding the hot gas, and finally cooling the gas before repeating the cycle.

Understanding the External Combustion Engine

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. 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.

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.

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 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. 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.

External Combustion Engine

What is Combustion?

“Combustion” refers to burning fuel with an oxidizer, to supply the heat. Engines of similar (or even identical) configurations and operations may use a supply of heat from other sources such as nuclear, solar, geothermal, or exothermic reactions not involving combustion; they are not then strictly classed as external combustion engines but as external thermal engines.

Working fluid

The working fluid can be of any composition and the system may be single-phase (liquid only or gas only) or dual-phase (liquid/gas).

  • Single phase: Gas is used in a Stirling engine. Single-phase liquid may sometimes be used.
  • Dual phase: Dual-phase external combustion engines use a phase transition to convert temperature to usable work, for example from liquid to (generally much larger) gas. This type of engine follows variants of the Rankine cycle. Steam engines are a common example of dual-phase engines. Another example is engines that use the Organic Rankine cycle.


  • CANDU reactor (a type of nuclear power plant)
  • coal-fired power plant
  • natural gas power plant
  • steam locomotive (although there are very few operational examples left)
  • Solar thermal power plant
  • Stirling engine

Advantages of external combustion engines

  • Almost any kind of fuel that is available can be used
  • Since power is not generated due to detonation of fuel hence very less noise is generated.
  • Engine emissions are also very low
  • Very economical for huge power generation

Disadvantages of external combustion engines

  • Not suitable for low load requirements
  • Leakage of working fluid
  • Lubricant consumption
  • Size of engine is relatively big
  • Overall working temperature is high so great care and special building materials are required

Applications of external combustion engines

  • Steam engines: Locomotive, Marine
  • Stirling Engines: Experimental space vehicles
  • Steam Turbines: Power, Large Marine
  • Closed Cycle Gas Turbine: Power, Marine