An external combustion engine (EC engine) is a heat engine where a working fluid, contained internally, is heated by combustion in an external source, through the engine wall or a heat exchanger. The fluid then, by expanding and acting on the mechanism of the engine, produces motion and usable work. The fluid is then cooled, compressed and reused (closed cycle), or dumped (open cycle). In these types of engines, the combustion is primarily used as a heat source, and the engine can work equally well with other types of heat sources.
"Combustion" refers to burning fuel with an oxidizer, to supply the heat. Engines of similar (or even identical) configuration and operation may use a supply of heat from other sources such as nuclear, solar, geothermal or exothermic reactions not involving combustion; they are not then strictly classed as external combustion engines, but as external thermal engines.
The working fluid can be of any composition and the system may be single-phase (liquid only or gas only) or dual-phase (liquid/gas).
Dual-phase external combustion engines use a phase transition to convert temperature to usable work, for example from liquid to (generally much larger) gas. This type of engine follows variants of the Rankine cycle. Steam engines are a common example of dual-phase engines. Another example is engines that use the Organic Rankine cycle.