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The Kinetic Molecular Theory

Author: John Hutchinson

We assume an understanding of the atomic molecular theory postulates, including that all matter is composed of discrete particles. The elements consist of identical atoms, and compounds consist of identical molecules, which are particles containing small whole number ratios of atoms. We also assume that we have determined a complete set of relative atomic weights, allowing us to determine the molecular formula for any compound. Finally, we assume a knowledge of the Ideal Gas Law, and the observations from which it is derived.

Our continuing goal is to relate the properties of the atoms and molecules to the properties of the materials which they comprise. As simple examples, we compare the substances water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Each of these is composed of molecules with few (two or three) atoms and low molecular weight. However, the physical properties of these substances are very different. Carbon dioxide and nitrogen are gases at room temperature, but it is well known that water is a liquid up to 100C. To liquefy nitrogen, we must cool it to -196C, so the boiling temperatures of water and nitrogen differ by about 300C. Water is a liquid over a rather large temperature range, freezing at 0C. In contrast, nitrogen is a liquid for a very narrow range of temperatures, freezing at -210C. Carbon dioxide poses yet another very different set of properties. At atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide gas cannot be liquefied at all: cooling the gas to -60C converts it directly to solid "dry ice." As is commonly observed, warming dry ice does not produce any liquid, as the solid sublimes directly to gas.

Why should these materials, whose molecules do not seem all that different, behave so differently? What are the important characteristics of these molecules which produce these physical properties? It is important to keep in mind that these are properties of the bulk materials. At this point, it is not even clear that the concept of a molecule is useful in answering these questions about melting or boiling.

There are at least two principal questions that arise about the Ideal Gas Law. First, it is interesting to ask whether this law always holds true, or whether there are conditions under which the pressure of the gas cannot be calculated from nRT/V. We thus begin by considering the limitations of the validity of the Ideal Gas Law. We shall find that the ideal gas law is only approximately accurate and that there are variations which do depend upon the nature of the gas. Second, then, it is interesting to ask why the ideal gas law should ever hold true. In other words, why are the variations not the rule rather than the exception?

To answer these questions, we need a model which will allow us to relate the properties of bulk materials to the characteristics of individual molecules. We seek to know what happens to a gas when it is compressed into a smaller volume, and why it generates a greater resisting pressure when compressed. Perhaps most fundamentally of all, we seek to know what happens to a substance when it is heated. What property of a gas is measured by the temperature?

Last Update: 2011-02-16