Physical Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Basic Terminology in Thermodynamics

A system is the part of the universe of interest, and the surroundings is everything else in the universe.

The internal energy of a system is the sum of the kinetic and potential energies of all of the particles (atoms and molecules) in the system.  This cannot be measured, but changes in internal energy can be measured.

There are 2 ways in which the internal energy of a system can change: heat and work.

  • Heat is the transfer of energy between 2 objects due to a temperature difference.  In chemistry, heat is commonly observed when a chemical reaction absorbs or releases energy.
  • Work is force acting over a distance.  In chemistry, a common type of work is the expansion or compression of a gas.

In chemistry, it is conventional to take the system’s point of view in deciding the sign of heat and work.  Thus, if heat is entering the system or if work is done on the system, then the sign is positive.  If heat is exiting the system of if work is done by the system, then the sign is negative.