Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that deals with the relationships between heat and other forms of energy. In particular, it describes how thermal energy is converted to and from other forms of energy and how it affects matter.
Thermal energy is the energy a substance or system has due to its temperature, i.e., the energy of moving or vibrating molecules, according to the Energy Education website of the Texas Education Agency. Thermodynamics involves measuring this energy, which can be "exceedingly complicated," according to David McKee, a professor of physics at Missouri Southern State University. "The systems that we study in thermodynamics … consist of very large numbers of atoms or molecules interacting in complicated ways. But, if these systems meet the right criteria, which we call equilibrium, they can be described with a very small number of measurements or numbers. Often this is idealized as the mass of the system, the pressure of the system, and the volume of the system, or some other equivalent set of numbers. Three numbers describe 1026 or 1030 nominal independent variables."
Thermodynamics, then, is concerned with several properties of matter; foremost among these is heat. Heat is energy transferred between substances or systems due to a temperature difference between them, according to Energy Education. As a form of energy, heat is conserved, i.e., it cannot be created or destroyed. It can, however, be transferred from one place to another. Heat can also be converted to and from other forms of energy. For example, a steam turbine can convert heat to kinetic energy to run a generator that converts kinetic energy to electrical energy. A light bulb can convert this electrical energy to electromagnetic radiation (light), which, when absorbed by a surface, is converted back into heat.
The amount of heat transferred by a substance depends on the speed and number of atoms or molecules in motion, according to Energy Education. The faster the atoms or molecules move, the higher the temperature, and the more atoms or molecules that are in motion, the greater the quantity of heat they transfer.
Temperature is "a measure of the average kinetic energy of the particles in a sample of matter, expressed in terms of units or degrees designated on a standard scale," according to the American Heritage Dictionary. The most commonly used temperature scale is Celsius, which is based on the freezing and boiling points of water, assigning respective values of 0 degrees C and 100 degrees C. The Fahrenheit scale is also based on the freezing and boiling points of water which have assigned values of 32 F and 212 F, respectively.
Scientists worldwide, however, use the Kelvin (K with no degree sign) scale, named after William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, because it works in calculations. This scale uses the same increment as the Celsius scale, i.e., a temperature change of 1 C is equal to 1 K. However, the Kelvin scale starts at absolute zero, the temperature at which there is a total absence of heat energy and all molecular motion stops. A temperature of 0 K is equal to minus 459.67 F or minus 273.15 C.
The amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a certain mass of a substance by a certain amount is called specific heat, or specific heat capacity, according to Wolfram Research. The conventional unit for this is calories per gram per kelvin. The calorie is defined as the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water at 4 C by 1 degree.
The specific heat of a metal depends almost entirely on the number of atoms in the sample, not its mass. For instance, a kilogram of aluminum can absorb about seven times more heat than a kilogram of lead. However, lead atoms can absorb only about 8 percent more heat than an equal number of aluminum atoms. A given mass of water, however, can absorb nearly five times as much heat as an equal mass of aluminum. The specific heat of a gas is more complex and depends on whether it is measured at constant pressure or constant volume.
Thermal conductivity (k) is “the rate at which heat passes through a specified material, expressed as the amount of heat that flows per unit time through a unit area with a temperature gradient of one degree per unit distance,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. The unit for k is watts (W) per meter (m) per kelvin (K). Values of k for metals such as copper and silver are relatively high at 401 and 428 W/m·K, respectively. This property makes these materials useful for automobile radiators and cooling fins for computer chips because they can carry away heat quickly and exchange it with the environment. The highest value of k for any natural substance is diamond at 2,200 W/m·K.
Other materials are useful because they are extremely poor conductors of heat; this property is referred to as thermal resistance, or R-value, which describes the rate at which heat is transmitted through the material. These materials, such as rock wool, goose down and Styrofoam, are used for insulation in exterior building walls, winter coats and thermal coffee mugs. R-value is given in units of square feet times degrees Fahrenheit times hours per British thermal unit (ft2·°F·h/Btu) for a 1-inch-thick slab.
Newton's Law of Cooling
In 1701, Sir Isaac Newton first stated his Law of Cooling in a short article titled "Scala graduum Caloris" ("A Scale of the Degrees of Heat") in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Newton's statement of the law translates from the original Latin as, "the excess of the degrees of the heat ... were in geometrical progression when the times are in an arithmetical progression." Worcester Polytechnic Institute gives a more modern version of the law as "the rate of change of temperature is proportional to the difference between the temperature of the object and that of the surrounding environment."
This results in an exponential decay in the temperature difference. For example, if a warm object is placed in a cold bath, within a certain length of time, the difference in their temperatures will decrease by half. Then in that same length of time, the remaining difference will again decrease by half. This repeated halving of the temperature difference will continue at equal time intervals until it becomes too small to measure.
Heat can be transferred from one body to another or between a body and the environment by three different means: conduction, convection and radiation. Conduction is the transfer of energy through a solid material. Conduction between bodies occurs when they are in direct contact, and molecules transfer their energy across the interface.
Convection is the transfer of heat to or from a fluid medium. Molecules in a gas or liquid in contact with a solid body transmit or absorb heat to or from that body and then move away, allowing other molecules to move into place and repeat the process. Efficiency can be improved by increasing the surface area to be heated or cooled, as with a radiator, and by forcing the fluid to move over the surface, as with a fan.
Radiation is the emission of electromagnetic (EM) energy, particularly infrared photons that carry heat energy. All matter emits and absorbs some EM radiation, the net amount of which determines whether this causes a loss or gain in heat.