Second Law of Thermodynamics

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The Second Law of Thermodynamics is used to determine the maximum efficiency of any process. A comparison can then be made between the maximum possible efficiency and the actual efficiency obtained.

One of the earliest statements of the Second Law of Thermodynamics was made by R. Clausius in 1850. He stated the following.

It is impossible to construct a device that operates in a cycle and produces no effect other than the removal of heat from a body at one temperature and the absorption of an equal quantity of heat by a body at a higher temperature.

With the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the limitations imposed on any process can be studied to determine the maximum possible efficiencies of such a process and then a comparison can be made between the maximum possible efficiency and the actual efficiency achieved. One of the areas of application of the second law is the study of energy-conversion systems. For example, it is not possible to convert all the energy obtained from a nuclear reactor into electrical energy. There must be losses in the conversion process. The second law can be used to derive an expression for the maximum possible energy conversion efficiency taking those losses into account. Therefore, the second law denies the possibility of completely converting into work all of the heat supplied to a system operating in a cycle, no matter how perfectly designed the system may be. The concept of the second law is best stated using Max Planck’s description:

It is impossible to construct an engine that will work in a complete cycle and produce no other effect except the raising of a weight and the cooling of a heat reservoir.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is needed because the First Law of Thermodynamics does not define the energy conversion process completely. The first law is used to relate and to evaluate the various energies involved in a process. However, no information about the direction of the process can be obtained by the application of the first law. Early in the development of the science of thermodynamics, investigators noted that while work could be converted completely into heat, the converse was never true for a cyclic process. Certain natural processes were also observed always to proceed in a certain direction (e.g., heat transfer occurs from a hot to a cold body). The second law was developed as an explanation of these natural phenomena.