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Thermodynamics

Students observing the calibration of temperature and analyzing the measuring devices called thermocouples

The electricity driving this computer was generated at a power plant designed on the basis of thermodynamic principles and which operates subject to limits of performance imposed by thermodynamic constraints.

The absolute and far-reaching authority of the principles of thermodynamics is so great that the famous British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington has written that if a scientist's pet theory of the Universe could be shown to be in violation of the laws of thermodynamics, "I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation". [From the Gifford Lectures of 1927, reprinted as The Nature of the Physical World, Sir Arthur Eddington, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press, 1958.]

Thermodynamics is that branch of physics which deals with energy and the natural laws governing its conservation and transformation. The First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one type into another. In elementary courses, the focus is on the conversion of thermal energy (heat) into mechanical energy (work). It turns out that the continuous transformation of heat into work is tightly restricted by the Second Law, but the reverse process is not constrained at all. We can easily waste as much work as we wish, transforming it into heat by means of friction, but the much more useful conversion of heat to work is subject to a maximum conversion efficiency, much less than 100%. The implications of this unfortunate natural law, the Second Law of thermodynamics, on the use and consumption of various fuels are enormous.

The study of thermodynamics is fundamental to engineers involved in the design of power plants of all kinds, from coal-fired and oil-fired units to nuclear, solar and geothermal. Thermodynamics is closely allied to fluid mechanics and heat transfer, forming the area called the thermal sciences. In the UMD mechanical engineering program, students first learn the basic principles of thermodynamics in their sophomore year. In their junior year, they study many applications of thermodynamics, followed by principles and applications of fluid mechanics. Heat transfer is studied in the senior year. Several elective courses are available in various specific areas of applied thermodynamics, including Energy Conversion (MNE 422), Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (MNE 423), Geothermal Energy (MNE 424), and Power Plant Design and Engineering (MNE 425).

Faculty with expertise in Thermodynamics

Course offerings in Thermodynamics

  • Engineering Thermodynamics
  • Engineering Thermodynamics II
  • Energy Conversion
  • Refrigeration and Air Conditioning
  • Power Plant Design and Engineering
  • Aircraft and Rocket Propulsion Systems

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