The Thermodynamic System and Its Environment

In thermodynamics, one usually considers both the thermodynamic system and its environment. The environment often contains one or more idealized heat reservoirs—heat sources with infinite heat capacity enabling them to give up or absorb heat without changing their temperature. (An ocean or other large body of water approximates a heat reservoir.) A typical thermodynamic system is a definite quantity of gas enclosed in a cylinder with a sliding piston that allows the volume to vary. In general, a thermodynamic system is defined by its temperature, volume, pressure, and chemical composition. A system is in equilibrium when these variables have the same value at all points.

A mathematical statement that links the variables to show their interdependence is called an equation of state; the gas laws are simple examples of such equations. Equations of state take on their simplest form when the Kelvin temperature scale is used; on this scale 0° corresponds to the lowest temperature theoretically possible.

When the external conditions are altered, a thermodynamic system will respond by changing its state; the temperature, volume, pressure, and chemical composition will adjust to a new equilibrium. The most important kinds of changes are adiabatic and isothermal changes. An adiabatic change is one that occurs without any flow of heat. The system is thermally insulated from the environment, and the first law of thermodynamics requires that the work done by or on the system be equal to the loss or gain of the system's internal energy. An isothermal change occurs when the system is in contact with a heat reservoir, so that the system remains at the temperature of the reservoir. In the isothermal process, heat flows from the reservoir if the system is expanding and into the reservoir if the system is being compressed. For an ideal gas the internal energy depends only on the temperature; hence the internal energy remains constant during an isothermal change, and the heat absorbed from or by the reservoir is equal to the work done on or by the environment.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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