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Vapor Pressure of a Liquid

Author: John Hutchinson

Our previous observations indicate that, for a given pressure, there is a phase transition temperature for liquid and gas: below the boiling point, the liquid is the only stable phase which exists, and any gas which might exist at that point will spontaneously condense into liquid. Above the boiling point, the gas is the only stable phase.

However, we can also commonly observe that any liquid left in an open container will, under most conditions, eventually evaporate, even if the temperature of the liquid is well below the normal boiling point. For example, we often observe that liquid water evaporates at temperatures well below the boiling point. This observation only seems surprising in light of the discussion of above. Why would liquid water spontaneously evaporate if liquid is the more stable phase below the boiling point? We clearly need to further develop our understanding of phase transitions.

The tendency of a liquid to evaporate is referred to as its volatility: a more volatile liquid evaporates more readily. To make a quantitative measure of liquid volatility, we slightly modify our previous cylinder-piston apparatus by adding a gauge to measure the pressure of gas inside the cylinder. (Here is an illustration.) We begin with liquid water only in the cylinder with an applied pressure of 1 atm at a temperature of 25C. We now pull back the piston by an arbitrary amount, and then we lock the piston in place, fixing the volume trapped inside the cylinder. We might expect to have created a vacuum in the cavity above the liquid water, and as such we might expect that the pressure inside the cylinder is small or zero.

Figure 4: Measuring Vapor Pressure.

Although there was initially no gas in the container, we observe that the pressure inside the container rises to a fixed value of 23.8 torr. Clearly, the observation of pressure indicates the presence of gaseous water inside the container, arising from evaporation of some, but not all, of the liquid water. Therefore, some of the liquid water must have evaporated. On the other hand, a look inside the container reveals that there is still liquid water present. Since both a liquid phase and a gas phase are present at the same time, we say that the liquid water and the water vapor must be in phase equilibrium. The term equilibrium in this case indicates that neither the vapor nor the liquid spontaneously converts into the other phase. Rather, both phases are stable at equilibrium.

Very interestingly, we can repeat this measurement by pulling the piston back to any other arbitrary position before locking it down, and, provided that there is still some liquid water present, the pressure in the container in every case rises to the same fixed value of 23.8 torr. It does not matter what volume we have trapped inside the cylinder, nor does it matter how much liquid water we started with. As long as there is still some liquid water present in the cylinder at equilibrium, the pressure of the vapor above that liquid is 23.8 torr at 25C.

Note that, in varying either the amount of liquid initially or the fixed volume of the container, the amount of liquid water that evaporates must be different in each case. This can be seen from the fact that the volume available for vapor must be different in varying either the volume of the container or the initial volume of the liquid. Since we observe that the pressure of the vapor is the same at a fixed temperature, the differing volumes reveal differing numbers of moles of water vapor. Clearly it is the pressure of the vapor, not the amount, which is the most important property in establishing the equilibrium between the liquid and the vapor. We can conclude that, at a given fixed temperature, there is a single specific pressure at which a given liquid and its vapor will be in phase equilibrium. We call this the vapor pressure of the liquid.

We can immediately observe some important features of the vapor pressure. First, for a given substance, the vapor pressure varies with the temperature. This can be found by simply increasing the temperature on the closed container in the preceding experiment. In every case, we observe that the equilibrium vapor pressure increases with increases in the temperature.

The vapor pressures of several liquids at several temperatures are shown here. The vapor pressure for each liquid increases smoothly with the temperature, although the relationship between vapor pressure and temperature is definitely not proportional.

Figure 5: Vapor Pressures of Various Liquids.

Second, figure 5 clearly illustrates that the vapor pressure depends strongly on what the liquid substance is. These variations reflect the differing volatilities of the liquids: those with higher vapor pressures are more volatile. In addition, there is a very interesting correlation between the volatility of a liquid and the boiling point of the liquid. Without exception, the substances with high boiling points have low vapor pressures and vice versa.

Looking more closely at the connection between boiling point and vapor pressure, we can find an important relationship. Looking at figure 5, we discover that the vapor pressure of each liquid is equal to 760 torr (which is equal to 1 atm) at the boiling point for that liquid. How should we interpret this? At an applied pressure of 1 atm, the temperature of the phase transition from liquid to gas is the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid is equal to 1 atm. This statement is actually true regardless of which pressure we consider: if we apply a pressure of 0.9 atm, the boiling point temperature is the temperature at which the liquid as a vapor pressure of 0.9 atm. Stated generally, the liquid undergoes phase transition at the temperature where the vapor pressure equals the applied pressure.

Last Update: 2011-02-16