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What is Steam Energy? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Steam?
  • 1:27 Steam Is Industrial
  • 2:15 Steam Is Natural
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Steam, a naturally occurring substance, can be used for many things. We have learned how to utilize the energy in steam for our own benefit, and in this lesson, you'll learn about what exactly steam is and where it comes from.

What is Steam?

Have you ever left a pot of boiling water on the stove and completely forgotten about it? By the time you remembered, you probably came back to an empty pot with no trace of the water that once filled it. But where did the water go? It didn't just vanish into thin air... or did it? The water is still nearby, but it's now in a gaseous form called steam. This form of water is also called water vapor, and it's very powerful stuff.

This is because steam has a lot of energy. When you took the liquid form of water and heated it on the stove, you increased the energy in those water molecules. When you get energized, you move around a lot more than when you're tired, right? Well, the same goes for water molecules. When you give them more energy, they get excited and start moving around more. This movement also causes the molecules to spread farther apart, so the volume of the gas is going to be much greater than the original volume of liquid you started with.

The temperature at which liquid water turns to water vapor is called the boiling point of water. At sea level, this is 100 degrees C, or 212 degrees F. What's really neat is that once you reach the boiling point, the temperature of the water will not increase any more. This is because as you continue to add more heat, more water molecules turn to vapor, and then you're not heating them anymore!

Steam is Industrial

All that energy in steam makes it a very powerful and useful substance, and we can use it to our advantage. You may have heard of the steam engine, which powers things like trains, boats, and factories. Invented in 1705, the steam engine was a major player in the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines are also responsible for that 'choo-choo' sound a train makes. Steam is released as the engine's exhaust, and when the exhaust valve is opened to let it out, the pressure that has built up escapes and makes that notorious sound.

Steam is also used to generate electricity. In electrical power plants, water is heated by coal or natural gas, and the steam that results turns turbines that generate the electricity that powers our homes and offices.

Steam is Natural

We have learned how to use steam for our own benefit, but steam has been around much longer than humans! Since water occurs naturally, so does steam. We mostly find this as a result of geothermal activity. Literally meaning 'heat from the Earth,' geothermal energy comes from places on Earth called hot spots. These places where magma rises from Earth's interior are just what they sound like - places where there is A LOT of underground heat.

Sometimes, geysers will form over these hot spots. These are springs that let out steam and hot water. Water in the ground over the hot spot seeps down through the cracks in the land to where the magma is. When it reaches the magma, the water gets heated, much like the water in the pot on your stove, and then it rises back toward the surface. It exits through an opening at the surface, spewing steam and hot water out into the air.

Geysers and geothermal energy are a great way to come about steam naturally. Instead of using coal or natural gas to create steam, we can use Earth's natural heat for steam power. The steam itself may be collected as it's coming out of the ground, or it may be collected underground by drilling into the rock that it's coming up through.

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