Adiabatic Process

An adiabatic process is a thermodynamic process, in which there is no heat transfer into or out of the system (Q = 0). The system can be considered to be perfectly insulated. In an adiabatic process, energy is transferred only as work. The assumption of no heat transfer is very important, since we can use the adiabatic approximation only in very rapid processes.

In these rapid processes, there is not enough time for the transfer of energy as heat to take place to or from the system.

In real devices (such as turbines, pumps, and compressors) heat losses and losses in the combustion process occur, but these losses are usually low in comparison to overall energy flow and we can approximate some thermodynamic processes by the adiabatic process.

Main characteristics of adiabatic process
Main characteristics of adiabatic process
Adiabitic vs Isentropic Process

In comparison to the isentropic process in which the entropy of the fluid or gas remains constant, in the adiabatic process the entropy changes. Therefore the adiabatic process is considered to be irreversible process. The isentropic process is a special case of an adiabatic process. The isentropic process is a reversible adiabatic process. An isentropic process can also be called a constant entropy process. In engineering such an idealized process is very useful for comparison with real processes.

One way to make real processes approximate reversible process is to carry out the process in a series of small or infinitesimal steps or infinitely slowly, so that the process can be considered as a series of equilibrium states. For example, heat transfer may be considered reversible if it occurs due to a small temperature difference between the system and its surroundings. But real processes are not done infinitely slowly. Reversible processes are a useful and convenient theoretical fiction, but do not occur in nature. For example, there could be turbulence in the gas. Therefore, heat engines must have lower efficiencies than limits on their efficiency due to the inherent irreversibility of the heat engine cycle they use.

Adiabatic Process and the First Law

For a closed system, we can write the first law of thermodynamics in terms of enthalpy:

dH = dQ + Vdp

In this equation the term Vdp is a flow process work. This work,  Vdp, is used for open flow systems like a turbine or a pump in which there is a “dp”, i.e. change in pressure. As can be seen, this form of the law simplifies the description of energy transfer. In adiabatic process, the enthalpy change equals the flow process work done on or by the system:

Adiabatic process (dQ = 0):

dH = Vdp     →     W = H2 – H1     →     H2 – H1 = Cp (T2 – T1)    (for an ideal gas)

See also: First Law of Thermodynamics

See also: Ideal Gas Law

See also: What is Enthalpy

Adiabatic Expansion – Adiabatic Compression

See also: What is an Ideal Gas

In an ideal gas, molecules have no volume and do not interact. According to the ideal gas law, pressure varies linearly with temperature and quantity, and inversely with volume.

pV = nRT


  • p is the absolute pressure of the gas
  • n is the amount of substance
  • T is the absolute temperature
  • V is the volume
  • R  is the ideal, or universal, gas constant, equal to the product of the Boltzmann constant and the Avogadro constant,

In this equation the symbol R is a constant called the universal gas constant that has the same value for all gases—namely, R =  8.31 J/mol K.

The adiabatic process can be expressed with the ideal gas law as:

pVκ = constant


p1V1κ = p2V2κ

in which κ = cp/cv is the ratio of the specific heats (or heat capacities) for the gas. One for constant pressure (cp) and one for constant volume (cv). Note that, this ratio κ  = cp/cv is a factor in determining the speed of sound in a gas and other adiabatic processes.

Other p, V, T Relation

p,V,T relation - isentropic process

On a p-V diagram, the process occurs along a line (called an adiabat) that has the equation p = constant / VκFor an ideal gas and a polytropic process, the case n = κ  corresponds to an adiabatic process.

Example of Adiabatic Expansion

P-V diagram - adiabatic process
Assume an adiabatic expansion of helium (3 → 4) in a gas turbine (Brayton cycle).

Assume an adiabatic expansion of helium (3 → 4) in a gas turbine. Since helium behaves almost as an ideal gas, use the ideal gas law to calculate outlet temperature of the gas (T4,real). In this turbines the high-pressure stage receives gas (point 3 at the figure; p3 = 6.7 MPa; T3 = 1190 K (917°C)) from a heat exchanger and exhaust it to another heat exchanger, where the outlet pressure is p4 = 2.78 MPa (point 4).


The outlet temperature of the gas, T4,real, can be calculated using p, V, T Relation for adiabatic process. Note that, it is the same relation as for the isentropic process, therefore results must be identical. It this case, we calculate the expansion for different gas turbine (less efficient) as in case of Isentropic Expansion in Gas Turbine.

p,V,T relation - isentropic process

In this equation the factor for helium is equal to κ=cp/cv=1.66. From the previous equation follows that the outlet temperature of the gas, T4,real, is:

adiabatic process - example

See also: Mayer’s relation

Adiabatic Process in Gas Turbine

first law - example - brayton cycle
Ideal Brayton cycle consist of four thermodynamic processes. Two isentropic processes and two isobaric processes.

Let assume the Brayton cycle that describes the workings of a constant pressure heat engineModern gas turbine engines and airbreathing jet engines also follow the Brayton cycle.

The Brayton cycle consist of four thermodynamic processes. Two adiabatic processes and two isobaric processes.

  1. adiabatic compression – ambient air is drawn into the compressor, where it is pressurized (1 → 2). The work required for the compressor is given by WC = H2 – H1.
  2. isobaric heat addition – the compressed air then runs through a combustion chamber, where fuel is burned and air or another medium is heated (2 → 3). It is a constant-pressure process, since the chamber is open to flow in and out. The net heat added is given by Qadd = H– H2
  3. adiabatic expansion – the heated, pressurized air then expands on turbine, gives up its energy. The work done by turbine is given by WT = H4 – H3
  4. isobaric heat rejection – the residual heat must be rejected in order to close the cycle. The net heat rejected is given by Qre = H– H1

As can be seen, we can describe and calculate (e.g. thermal efficiency) such cycles (similarly for Rankine cycle) using enthalpies.

See also: Thermal Efficiency of Brayton Cycle

Isentropic Efficiency – Turbine, Compressor, Nozzle

In previous chapters we assumed that the gas expansion is isentropic and therefore we used T4,is  as the outlet temperature of the gas. These assumptions are only applicable with ideal cycles.

Most steady-flow devices (turbines, compressors, nozzles) operate under adiabatic conditions, but they are not truly isentropic but are rather idealized as isentropic for calculation purposes. We define parameters ηT,  ηC, ηN, as a ratio of real work done by device to work by device when operated under isentropic conditions (in case of turbine). This ratio is known as the Isentropic Turbine/Compressor/Nozzle Efficiency.

These parameters describe how efficiently a turbine, compressor or nozzle approximates a corresponding isentropic device. This parameter reduces the overall efficiency and work output. For turbines, the value of ηT is typically 0.7 to 0.9 (70–90%).

Isentropic Efficiency - equations

Isentropic vs. adiabatic compression

Isentropic vs. adiabatic expansion
Isentropic process is a special case of adiabatic processes. It is a reversible adiabatic process. An isentropic process can also be called a constant entropy process.


Example: Isentropic Turbine Efficiency

Isentropic vs. adiabatic expansion
Isentropic process is a special case of adiabatic processes. It is a reversible adiabatic process. An isentropic process can also be called a constant entropy process.

Assume an isentropic expansion of helium (3 → 4) in a gas turbine. In this turbines the high-pressure stage receives gas (point 3 at the figure; p3 = 6.7 MPa; T3 = 1190 K (917°C)) from a heat exchanger and exhaust it to another heat exchanger, where the outlet pressure is p4 = 2.78 MPa (point 4). The temperature (for isentropic process) of the gas at the exit of the turbine is T4s = 839 K (566°C).

Calculate the work done by this turbine and calculate the real temperature at the exit of the turbine, when the isentropic turbine efficiency is ηT = 0.91 (91%).


From the first law of thermodynamics, the work done by turbine in an isentropic process can be calculated from:

WT = h3 – h4s     →     WTs = cp (T3 – T4s)

From Ideal Gas Law we know, that the molar specific heat of a monatomic ideal gas is:

Cv = 3/2R = 12.5 J/mol K and Cp = Cv + R = 5/2R = 20.8 J/mol K

We transfer the specific heat capacities into units of J/kg K via:

cp = Cp . 1/M (molar weight of helium) = 20.8 x 4.10-3 = 5200 J/kg K

The work done by gas turbine in isentropic process is then:

WT,s = cp (T3 – T4s) = 5200 x (1190 – 839) = 1.825 MJ/kg

The real work done by gas turbine in adiabatic process is then:
WT,real = cp (T3 – T4s) . ηT = 5200 x (1190 – 839) x 0.91 = 1.661 MJ/kg

Free Expansion – Joule Expansion

These are adiabatic processes in which no transfer of heat occurs between the system and its environment and no work is done on or by the system. These types of adiabatic processes are called free expansion. It is an irreversible process in which a gas expands into an insulated evacuated chamber. It is also called Joule expansion. For an ideal gas, the temperature doesn’t change (see: Joule’s Second Law), however, real gases experience a temperature change during free expansion. In free expansion Q = W = 0, and the first law requires that:

dEint = 0

A free expansion can not be plotted on a P-V diagram, because the process is rapid, not quasistatic. The intermediate states are not equilibrium states, and hence the pressure is not clearly defined.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. Kenneth S. Krane. Introductory Nuclear Physics, 3rd Edition, Wiley, 1987, ISBN: 978-0471805533
  7. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  8. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  9. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above:

Thermodynamic Processes