MCAT Content / Gas Phase / Gas Phase Gc Phy Absolute Temperature K Kelvin Scale

Absolute Temperature, (K) Kelvin Scale

Topic: Gas Phase

The kelvin is a unit of measurement for temperature; the null point of the Kelvin scale is absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature.

The kelvin is a unit of measurement for temperature. It is one of the seven base units in the International System of Units (SI) and is assigned the unit symbol K. The Kelvin scale is an absolute, thermodynamic temperature scale using absolute zero as its null point. In the classical description of thermodynamics, absolute zero is the temperature at which all thermal motion ceases.

The choice of absolute zero as null point for the Kelvin scale is logical. Different types of matter boil or freeze at different temperatures, but at 0K (absolute zero), all thermal motions of any matter are maximally suppressed. The Kelvin scale is used extensively in scientific work because a number of physical quantities, such as the volume of an ideal gas, are directly related to absolute temperature.

The Kelvin scale is named after Glasgow University engineer and physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907), who wrote of the need for an “absolute thermometric scale. ” Unlike the degree Fahrenheit and the degree Celsius, the kelvin is not referred to or typeset as a degree. The kelvin is the primary unit of measurement in the physical sciences, but it is often used in conjunction with the degree Celsius, which has the same magnitude. The kelvin is defined as the fraction 1/273.16 of the thermodynamic temperature of the triple point of water (exactly 0.01°C, or 32.018°F). To convert kelvin to degrees Celsius, we use the following formula:

Subtracting 273.16K from the temperature of the triple point of water, 0.01°C, makes absolute zero (0K) equivalent to -273.15°C and -460°F.

Absolute zero is the coldest possible temperature. Formally, it is the temperature at which entropy reaches its minimum value. More simply put, absolute zero refers to a state in which all the energy of a system is extracted (by definition, the lowest energy state the system can have). Absolute zero is universal in the sense that all matteris in ground state at this temperature. Therefore, it is a natural choice as the null point for a temperature unit system.

To be precise, a system at absolute zero still possesses quantum mechanical zero-point energy, the energy of its ground state. The uncertainty principle states that the position of a particle cannot be determined with absolute precision; therefore a particle is in motion even if it is at absolute zero, and a ground state still carries a minimal amount of kinetic energy. However, in the interpretation of classical thermodynamics, kinetic energy can be zero, and the thermal energy of matter vanishes.

The zero point of a thermodynamic temperature scale, such as the Kelvin scale, is set at absolute zero. By international agreement, absolute zero is defined as 0K on the Kelvin scale and as -273.15° on the Celsius scale (equivalent to -459.67° on the Fahrenheit scale). Scientists have brought systems to temperatures very close to absolute zero, at which point matter exhibits quantum effects such as superconductivity and superfluidity.


Key Points

• 0K ( absolute zero ) is universal because all thermal motions of all matter are maximally suppressed at this temperature. Absolute zero is therefore the natural choice as the null point of the Kelvin scale.

• The Kelvin scale is used extensively in scientific work because a number of physical quantities, such as the volume of an ideal gas, are directly related to absolute temperature.

• To convert kelvin to degree Celsius, we use the following formula: .

• Absolute zero is universal in the sense that all matter is in ground state at this temperature. Therefore, it is a natural choice as the null point for a temperature unit system.

• K system at absolute zero still possesses quantum mechanical zero-point energy, the energy of its ground state. However, in the interpretation of classical thermodynamics, kinetic energy can be zero, and the thermal energy of matter vanishes.


Key Terms

absolute zero: The coldest possible temperature: zero on the Kelvin scale and approximately -273.15°C and -459.67°F. The total absence of heat; the temperature at which motion of all molecules would cease.

Triple point: The unique temperature and pressure at which the solid, liquid and gas phases of a substance are all in equilibrium.

ideal gas: A hypothetical gas whose molecules exhibit no interaction and undergo elastic collision with each other and with the walls of the container.

entropy: A measure of how evenly energy (or some analogous property) is distributed in a system.

thermodynamics: a branch of natural science concerned with heat and its relation to energy and work



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