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Literature Review


Steam engines are a good example of an external combustion devices whereas petrol engines are a good example of internally combustion devices. For many years, engines have dictated the way human beings live their daily life. This assertion is true because humans use engine driven machines in almost all daily activities. Some of these activities include farming, transport, and lighting, among other activities. However, petrol engines and steam engines are different in terms of efficiency, economics, safety, the starting time, environmental pollution and performance. The aim of this research is to carry out a comparison between the two types of engine through outlining their salient differences. These differences are based on the four perspectives above namely efficiency, economics, environmental pollution and performance. This is geared towards establishing which of the two engines is appropriate for use.


The reason for choosing this topic is because it is related to my pathway of education in university. Moreover, it is because of the love for engines since my childhood. Additionally, engines are the most helpful inventions in human life, and advanced types of engines are harmless when used appropriately and friendly to the environment.

The first source for this assignment is the book titled “The Steam Engine: Comprising an Account of its Invention and Progressive Improvement” by Thomas Fredgold. This book was published by Cambridge University Press in the year 2014. Thomas is a renowned writer of such an important subjects such as steam engine invention and development. He has made a remarkable contribution in the engineering field. In this book, he gives an account of progressive advancement of the steam engine from its invention to its present high perfection stage. He continues his discussion by outlining the principles that guide combustion and the results of using different kinds of fuel in generating steam. Under this, the amounts of ignition places, chimneys and the necessary precautions for security and reduced negative effect are well discussed. The discussion continues to outline the power that can be derived from a specific quantity of steam, and the methods of advancing it are scientifically and theoretically illustrated. This follows a classification of engines, their velocity and quantities that give a maximized result of the engines.

The author continues the discussion by giving an account of the construction of fundamentally different variations of steam engines that are noncondensing. This chapter gives a detailed discussion of ensuring the maximum high pressure of an engine by employing the best techniques of preventing steam loss. After this, there follows a discussion of the economy of a steam engine in terms of construction, power, and space proportion. In summary, this book is a helpful source for providing information pertaining to the salient advantages and disadvantages of a steam engine. Through the discussion in the book, it is possible to discern the salient differences that are present between a steam engine and petrol engine.

The second source of information for this project is “Internal Combustion Engine: Performance Fuel Economy and Emissions” by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The journal was published by Woodhead Publishing Limited in the year 2013. This journal investigates closely at advancements in mechanical engineering involving the IC engines. The aim, as discussed in the journal, is to reduce the production of carbon dioxide as well as increasing dependency on oil-derivate fuels while reducing the emission of harmful gases. The journal presents the application of IC (Internal Combustion) engines that is followed by a detailed discussion of shortcomings of applying alternative fuels. The author also explores on current advancements in combustion, contamination prevention tactics and comparison of data. This source is very useful in providing the relevant information pertaining to IC petrol engines. This way, it will act as the basis for deriving some salient features of a petrol engine which will aid in noting its difference to a steam engine.

The third source of information to be used in this research is an article titled “Difference between Steam Engine and Petrol Engine” written by Bhishm Khanna. The article was published in 2012 by Preserve Article Company. The article simply outlines the differences between the Petrol and Steam engine. Although the article does not give too much detail on the salient differences between the two, it acts as a base for establishing the differences and building on them using the information from the other two sources. The article is, therefore, useful in providing the relevant head start information on the topic of research.

The Differences between Steam and Petrol Engines

The salient differences between steam and petrol engines can be discussed in six perspectives namely; their efficiency, economics, safety, the starting time, the extent of environmental pollution and performance.

Efficiency Difference

The two engines have a difference in efficiency. A steam engine has an efficiency of approximately 20 percent whereas petrol engine has an efficiency of approximately 40 percent (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). This means that the efficiency of a petrol engine is double that of a steam engine and, therefore, it is much preferred to the steam engine. The engine’s efficiency is derived from by dividing the energy production of powered work that the engine yields by the energy contribution to the engine by the scorching fuel (Tredgold, 2014). As asserted by Tredgold (2014), the historic measure for energy of a steam engine was its duty. This term was introduced by Watt when he compared the efficiency of his machines with the ancient designs by Newcomen. The term duty denoted the number of foot-pounds of labor provided by 94 pounds of burning coal (Tredgold, 2014). The most ever efficient heat engine was Carnot cycle that involves the movement of heat from a great temperature pool to another of a low temperature, and its efficiency is determined by the temperature variation.

For more efficiency, steam engines are put to function at the maximum steam temperature conceivable and the waste heat should be released at the lowermost temperature possible. On the other hand, the efficiency of a steam engine is limited by the working fluid (Khanna, 2012). Practically, a steam engine that emits steam to the air normally has an efficiency that ranges from 1 to 10 percent (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). By adding a condenser and numerous expansion joined with great steam pressure, the efficiency is greatly enhanced by the range of 10 to 20 percent (Tredgold, 2014). A recent big electrical power location that is supplemented with steam reheat and economizers can achieve an efficiency that is within the range of 40 to 50 percent (Tredgold, 2014).

Petrol engines, on the other hand, run at a higher speed than the steam engine. This high efficiency is attributed to the presence of lighter pistons that guarantees lesser compression ratios and the fact that petrol burns more swiftly than coal (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). Pistons in petrol engines have shorter strokes than in steam engines and, therefore, have a higher efficiency than steam engines. For this difference in efficiency and speed, petrol engines are preferable than steam engines.

Economical Difference

Economically, the two types of engines have a significant difference. For one, steam engine is very heavy and bulky. Historically, tube boilers were used for generating high-pressure steam (Tredgold, 2014). They thus were very large and heavy, and they required a lot of water (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). Afterwards, they were replaced with more economical water boilers at the end of the 19th century for application in propelling marine and for use in large stationary appliances (Tredgold, 2014). Despite the replacement, steam engines did not surpass the economic aspect that was realized after the invention of petrol engines. Its bulkiness can also be attributed to its furnace and huge boiler. Because of its bulkiness, it cannot be applied in running small automobiles such as trucks and cars. On the other hand, a petrol engine is light in weight and very compact (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). This way, a petrol engine occupies a less space compared to the massive space that the steam engine occupies (Khanna, 2012). Because of its small size, petrol engine is applied in running cars and buses (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). In terms of fuel, a steam engine uses a lot of fuel because of its massive size and bulkiness. On the other hand, petrol engine uses a little amount of fuel because of its small size.

Safety Difference

In terms of safety, a steam engine is highly unsafe to utilize (Khanna, 2012). This unsafe condition is posed by the high probability of bursting of boilers because of extreme steam pressure (Khanna, 2012). To facilitate the realization of maximum work from the energy given by the heat, the steam must be kept at both high temperature and pressure inside the boiler (Tredgold, 2014). A situation of too much increase in steam pressure can cause the bursting of the boiler that in turn may lead to loss of both life and material goods. Therefore, the most dangerous part is its boiler where the production of steam takes place. This scenario was very common in early days because of lack of good construction material and poor construction techniques. On the other hand, a petrol engine is relatively safe because its combustion takes place within the engine and, therefore, poses no danger to life and property (Tredgold, 2014).

Starting Time Difference

The starting time of the two types of engines is another perspective of the difference between the two (Khanna, 2012). The steam engine takes time to start and does not start at once. Before it starts, a coal fire must be lit to produce heat that in turn heats the water to obtain steam (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). This process consumes time, and the steam engine can, therefore, not start at once. On the other hand, petrol engine is usually started at once through ignition. It uses a spark ignition whose high voltage is provided by an ignition coil. In modern car engines, the electric ECU (Engine Control Unit) manages the ignition timing (Tredgold, 2014).

Performance Difference

Steam engine and petrol engine performs differently. The steam engines require heat for steaming the water and distributing the steam. This heat can be derived from several sources and in most cases from combusting materials accompanied by sufficient supply of air in a sealed space known as the combustion chamber. In steam engines, pistons take supplies of steam at very high temperature and pressure and in turn gives out a supply of steam at a lesser temperature and pressure (Tredgold, 2014). Because of this mechanism, the performance of steam engines is relatively low. On the other hand, petrol engine performance is higher. The commonly used way of rating a petrol engine is through brake power that is measured at the flywheel and is denoted in horsepower or kilowatts (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). These measurements present the real mechanical power result of an engine in an operational and comprehensive form. A good example of this is the car engine that besides the friction and thermodynamic losses in the engine, the water pump, radiator fan and alternator absorbs some power. This situation reduces the available power at the flywheel for moving the car (Tredgold, 2014). Power output differs a little according to the value of energy of the fuel used, the ambient air temperature, the altitude and humidity. Despite the loss of power in petrol engines, its performance is higher than that of the steam engine.

Environmental Pollution Difference

Steam engines are known for immensely polluting the environment. The inputs used as fuel in these engines to facilitate the production of heat which in turn heats the water to produce steam are highly pollutant when they combust (Tredgold, 2014). These fuel sources include the coal and some other such as nuclear materials responsible for producing high energy required for steam engines. They usually emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere thus polluting the environment. On the other hand, petrol engines are pollutant but not as much as steam engine fuels do. When petrol is used as a fuel, only a little carbon dioxide is produced and released to the atmosphere. This cannot compare to the huge clouds of smoke produced when some steam engine fuels are used such as coal and nuclear reactants. The latest developments in technology and advancements in research are facilitating the manufacturing of cars that have a reduced carbon dioxide emissions and which depends on oil-derivate fossil fuel (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013). These developments are geared towards ensuring a minimum environmental pollution from petrol engine vehicles.


In conclusion, both petrol and steam driven engines have their salient differences. These differences are as discussed in the essay above in terms of their efficiency, economics, safety, the starting time, the extent of environmental pollution and their performance. Between the two engines, petrol engines are more preferable than the steam engine. This assertion is attributed to several reasons. First, petrol engine has a higher efficiency of 40 percent than the steam engine that has an efficiency of 20 percent. Secondly, a petrol engine is and very compact whereas steam engine is bulky and very heavy hence requires a lot of fuels. Thirdly, the performance of a petrol engine is very high compared to that of a steam engine. The fourth reason is that a petrol engine requires a single ignition to start while steam engine takes time to start. The fifth reason is that petrol engine is very safe for use because the combustion takes place internally whereas steam engines are very unsafe for use because of the risk of explosion posed by the external boilers. The sixth reason is that steam engines are highly pollutant as compared to the petrol engines.





Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2013). Internal Combustion Engines: Performance, Fuel Economy and Emissions: In Combustion Engines and Fuels Group Conference. London.

Khanna, B. (2012). What is the difference between Steam Engine and Petrol Engine? Retrieved 17 February 2015, from

Tredgold, T. (2014). The steam engine: Comprising an Account of its Invention and Progressive Improvement. Cambridge University Press. London


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