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Condensation and Freezing

Author: John Hutchinson

We have concluded from our observations of spontaneous mixing that a spontaneous process always produces the final state of greatest probability. A few simple observations reveal that our deduction needs some thoughtful refinement. For example, we have observed that the entropy of liquid water is greater than that of solid water. This makes sense in the context of equation 1, since the kinetic theory indicates that liquid water has a greater value of W. Nevertheless, we observe that liquid water spontaneously freezes at temperatures below 0C. This process clearly displays a decrease in entropy and therefore evidently a shift from a more probable state to a less probable state. This appears to contradict directly our conclusion.

Similarly, we expect to find condensation of water droplets from steam when steam is cooled. On days of high humidity, water spontaneously liquefies from the air on cold surfaces such as the outside of a glass of ice water or the window of an air conditioned building. In these cases, the transition from gas to liquid is clearly from a higher entropy phase to a lower entropy phase, which does not seem to follow our reasoning thus far.

Our previous conclusions concerning entropy and probability increases were compelling, however, and we should be reluctant to abandon them. What we have failed to take into consideration is that these phase transitions involve changes of energy and thus heat flow. Condensation of gas to liquid and freezing of liquid to solid both involve evolution of heat. This heat flow is of consequence because our observations also revealed that the entropy of a substance can be increased significantly by heating. One way to preserve our conclusions about spontaneity and entropy is to place a condition on their validity: a spontaneous process produces the final state of greatest probability and entropy provided that the process does not involve evolution of heat. This is an unsatisfying result, however, since most physical and chemical processes involve heat transfer. As an alternative, we can force the process not to evolve heat by isolating the system undergoing the process: no heat can be released if there is no sink to receive the heat, and no heat can be absorbed if there is no source of heat. Therefore, we conclude from our observations that a spontaneous process in an isolated system produces the final state of greatest probability and entropy. This is one statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Last Update: 2011-02-16