This article may have too many section headers dividing up its content. (February 2021)
Steam is water in the gas phase. This may occur due to evaporation or due to boiling, where heat is applied until water reaches the enthalpy of vaporization. Steam that is saturated or superheated is invisible; however, "steam" often refers to wet steam, the visible mist or aerosol of water droplets formed as water vapour condenses.
Water increases in volume by 1,700 times at standard temperature and pressure; this change in volume can be converted into mechanical work by steam engines such as reciprocating piston type engines and steam turbines, which are a sub-group of steam engines. Piston type steam engines played a central role in the Industrial Revolution and modern steam turbines are used to generate more than 80% of the world's electricity. If liquid water comes in contact with a very hot surface or depressurizes quickly below its vapor pressure, it can create a steam explosion.
Steam is traditionally created by heating a boiler via burning coal and other fuels, but it is also possible to create steam with solar energy. Water vapor that includes water droplets is described as wet steam. As wet steam is heated further, the droplets evaporate, and at a high enough temperature (which depends on the pressure) all of the water evaporates and the system is in vapor-liquid equilibrium. When steam has reached this equilibrium point, it is referred to as saturated steam.
Steam tables  contain thermodynamic data for water/saturated steam and are often used by engineers and scientists in design and operation of equipment where thermodynamic cycles involving steam are used. Additionally, thermodynamic phase diagrams for water/steam, such as a temperature-entropy diagram or a Mollier diagram shown in this article, may be useful. Steam charts are also used for analysing thermodynamic cycles.
|Enthalpy-entropy (h-s) diagram for steam.||Pressure-enthalpy (p-h) diagram for steam.||Temperature-entropy (T-s) diagram for steam.|
Steam is used in various chemical processes as reactant, especially in the petrochemical industry. Steam cracking of long chain hydrocarbons produces lower molecular weight hydrocarbons for fuel or chemical applications. Steam reforming produces syngas or hydrogen.
Steam's capacity to transfer heat is also used in the home: for cooking vegetables, steam cleaning of fabric, carpets and flooring, and for heating buildings. In each case, water is heated in a boiler, and the steam carries the energy to a target object. Steam is also used in ironing clothes to add enough humidity with the heat to take wrinkles out and put intentional creases into the clothing.
In electric generation, steam is typically condensed at the end of its expansion cycle, and returned to the boiler for re-use. However, in cogeneration, steam is piped into buildings through a district heating system to provide heat energy after its use in the electric generation cycle. The world's biggest steam generation system is the New York City steam system, which pumps steam into 100,000 buildings in Manhattan from seven cogeneration plants.
In other industrial applications steam is used for energy storage, which is introduced and extracted by heat transfer, usually through pipes. Steam is a capacious reservoir for thermal energy because of water's high heat of vaporization.
Fireless steam locomotives were steam locomotives that operated from a supply of steam stored on board in a large tank resembling a conventional locomotive's boiler. This tank was filled by process steam, as is available in many sorts of large factory, such as paper mills. The locomotive's propulsion used pistons and connecting rods, as for a typical steam locomotive. These locomotives were mostly used in places where there was a risk of fire from a boiler's firebox, but were also used in factories that simply had a plentiful supply of steam to spare.
Steam engines and steam turbines use the expansion of steam to drive a piston or turbine to perform mechanical work. The ability to return condensed steam as water-liquid to the boiler at high pressure with relatively little expenditure of pumping power is important. Condensation of steam to water often occurs at the low-pressure end of a steam turbine, since this maximizes the energy efficiency, but such wet-steam conditions must be limited to avoid excessive turbine blade erosion. Engineers use an idealised thermodynamic cycle, the Rankine cycle, to model the behavior of steam engines. Steam turbines are often used in the production of electricity.
Steam is used in piping for utility lines. It is also used in jacketing and tracing of piping to maintain the uniform temperature in pipelines and vessels.
Steam is used to accentuate drying especially in prefabricates. Care should be taken since concrete produces heat during hydration and additional heat from the steam could be detrimental to hardening reaction processes of the concrete.
Used in cleaning of fibers and other materials, sometimes in preparation for painting. Steam is also useful in melting hardened grease and oil residues, so it is useful in cleaning kitchen floors and equipment and internal combustion engines and parts. Among the advantages of using steam versus a hot water spray are the facts that steam can operate at higher temperatures and it uses substantially less water per minute.