Chapter 2. The Kinetic Theory of Gases


A photograph of an erupting volcano. A giant plume of gas and dust can be seen being ejected from it.
Figure 2.1 A volcanic eruption releases tons of gas and dust into the atmosphere. Most of the gas is water vapor, but several other gases are common, including greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and acidic pollutants such as sulfur dioxide. However, the emission of volcanic gas is not all bad: Many geologists believe that in the earliest stages of Earth’s formation, volcanic emissions formed the early atmosphere. (credit: modification of work by “Boaworm”/Wikimedia Commons)

Gases are literally all around us—the air that we breathe is a mixture of gases. Other gases include those that make breads and cakes soft, those that make drinks fizzy, and those that burn to heat many homes. Engines and refrigerators depend on the behaviors of gases, as we will see in later chapters.

As we discussed in the preceding chapter, the study of heat and temperature is part of an area of physics known as thermodynamics, in which we require a system to be macroscopic, that is, to consist of a huge number (such as [latex]{10}^{23}[/latex]) of molecules. We begin by considering some macroscopic properties of gases: volume, pressure, and temperature. The simple model of a hypothetical “ideal gas” describes these properties of a gas very accurately under many conditions. We move from the ideal gas model to a more widely applicable approximation, called the Van der Waals model.

To understand gases even better, we must also look at them on the microscopic scale of molecules. In gases, the molecules interact weakly, so the microscopic behavior of gases is relatively simple, and they serve as a good introduction to systems of many molecules. The molecular model of gases is called the kinetic theory of gases and is one of the classic examples of a molecular model that explains everyday behavior.

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