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Properties of Matter



Matter is physical substance that occupies space, has mass, is composed of atomsor, in the case of subatomic particles, is part of an atomand is convertible to energy. On Earth, matter appears in three clearly defined formssolid, liquid, and gaswhose varying structural characteristics are a function of the speeds at which its molecules move in relation to one another. A single substance may exist in any of the three phases: liquid water, for instance, can be heated to become steam, a vapor; or, when sufficient heat is removed from it, it becomes ice, a solid. These are merely physical changes, which do not affect the basic composition of the substance itself: it is still water. Matter, however, can and does undergo chemical changes, which (as with the various states or phases of matter) are an outcome of activity at the atomic and molecular level.


Matter and Energy

One of the characteristics of matter noted in its definition above is that it is convertible to energy. We rarely witness this conversion, though as Albert Einstein (1879-1955) showed with his Theory of Relativity, it occurs in a massive way at speeds approaching that of light.

Einstein's famous formula, E = mc2, means that every item possesses a quantity of energy equal to its mass multiplied by the squared speed of light. Given the fact that light travels at 186,000 mi (299,339 km) per second, the quantities of energy available from even a tiny object traveling at that speed are enormous indeed. This is the basis for both nuclear power and nuclear weaponry, each of which uses some of the smallest particles in the known universe to produce results that are both amazing and terrifying.

Even in everyday life, it is still possible to observe the conversion of mass to energy, if only on a very small scale. When a fire burnsthat is, when wood experiences combustion in the presence of oxygen, and undergoes chemical changesa tiny fraction of its mass is converted to energy. Likewise, when a stick of dynamite explodes, it too experiences chemical changes and the release of energy. The actual amount of energy released is, again, very small: for a stick of dynamite weighing 2.2 lb (1 kg), the portion of its mass that "disappears" is be equal to 6 parts out of 100 billion.

Actually, none of the matter in the fire or the dynamite blast disappears: it simply changes forms. Most of it becomes other types of matterperhaps new compounds, and certainly new mixtures of compounds. A very small part, as we have seen, becomes energy. One of the most fundamental principles of the universe is the conservation of energy, which holds that within a system isolated from all other outside factors, the total amount of energy remains the same, though transformations of energy from one form to another take place. In this situation, some of the energy remains latent, or "in reserve" as matter, while other components of the energy are released; yet the total amount of energy remains the same.

Physical and Chemical Changes

In discussing matteras, for instance, in the context of matter transforming into energyone may speak in physical or chemical terms, or both. Generally speaking, physicists study physical properties and changes, while chemists are concerned with chemical processes and changes.

A physicist views matter in terms of its mass, temperature, mechanical properties (for example, elasticity); electrical conductivity; and other structural characteristics. The chemical makeup of matter, on the other hand, is of little concern to a physicist. For instance, in analyzing a fire or an explosion, the physicist is not concerned with the interactions of combustible or explosive materials and oxygen. The physicist's interest, rather, is in questions such as the amount of heat in the fire, the properties of the sound waves emitted in the explosion of the dynamite, and so on.

The changes between different states or phases of matter, as they are discussed below, are physical changes. If water boils and vaporizes as steam, it is still water; likewise if it freezes to become solid ice, nothing has changed with regard to the basic chemical structure of the H2O molecules that make up water. But if water reacts with another substance to form a new compound, it has undergone chemical change. Likewise, if water molecules experience electrolysis, a process in which electric current is used to decompose H2O into molecules of H2 and O2, this is also a chemical change.

Similarly, a change from matter to energy, while it is also a physical change, typically involves some chemical or nuclear process to serve as "midwife" to that change. Yet physical and chemical changes have at least one thing in common: they can be explained in terms of behavior at the atomic or molecular level. This is true of many physical processesand of all chemical ones.


In his highly readable Six Easy Pieces a work that includes considerable discussion of chemistry as well as physicsthe great American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) asked, "If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?"

The answer he gave was this: "I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atomslittle articles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied."

Indeed, what Feynman called the "atomic hypothesis" is one of the most important keys to understanding both physical and chemical changes. The behavior of particles at the atomic level has a defining role in the shape of the world studied by the sciences, and an awareness of this behavior makes it easier to understand physical processes, such as changes of state between solid, liquid, and gas; chemical processes, such as the formation of new compounds; and other processes, such as the conversion of matter to energy, which involve both physical and chemical changes. Only when one comprehends the atomic structure of matter is it possible to move on to the chemical elements that are the most basic materials of chemistry.


As Feynman went on to note, atoms are so tiny that if an apple were magnified to the size of Earth, the atoms in it would each be about the size of a regular apple. Clearly, atoms and other atomic particles are far too small to be glimpsed even by the most highly powered optical microscope. Yet physicists and other scientists are able to study the behavior of atoms, and by doing so, they are able to form a picture of what occurs at the atomic level.

An atom is the fundamental particle in a chemical element. The atom is not, however, the smallest particle in the universe: atoms are composed of subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. These are distinguished from one another in terms of electric charge: as with the north and south poles of magnets, positive and negative charges attract one another, but like charges repel. (In fact, magnetism is simply a manifestation of a larger electromagnetic force that encompasses both electricity and magnetism.)

Clustered at the center, or nucleus, of the atom are protons, which are positively charged, and neutrons, which exert no charge. Spinning around the nucleus are electrons, which exert a negative charge. The vast majority of the atom's mass is made up by the protons and neutrons, which have approximately the same mass; that of the electron is much smaller. If an electron had a mass of 1not a unit, but simply a figure used for comparisonthe mass of the proton would be 1,836, and of the neutron 1,839.

Atoms of the same element always have the same number of protons, and since this figure is unique for a given element, each element is assigned an atomic number equal to the number of protons in its nucleus. Two atoms may have the same number of protons, and thus be of the same element, yet differ in their number of neutrons. Such atoms are called isotopes.

The number of electrons is usually the same as the number of protons, and thus atoms have a neutral charge. In certain situations, however, the atom may lose or gain one or more electrons and acquire a net charge, becoming an ion. But electric charge, like energy, is conserved, and the electrons are not "lost" when an atom becomes an ion: they simply go elsewhere.

It is useful, though far from precise, to compare the interior of an atom to a planet spinning very quickly around a sun. If the nucleus were our own Sun, then the electrons spinning at the edge of the atom would be on an orbit somewhere beyond Mars: in other words, the ratio between the size of the nucleus and the furthest edge of the atom is like that between the Sun's diameter and an orbital path about 80 million miles beyond Mars.

One of many differences between an atom and a solar system, however, is the fact that the electrons are spinning around the nucleus at a relative rate of motion much, much greater than any planet is revolving around the Sun. Furthermore, what holds the atom together is not gravitational force, as in the Solar System, but electromagnetic force. A final and critical difference is the fact that electrons move in much more complex orbital patterns than the elliptical paths that planets make in their movement around the Sun.


Though an atom is the fundamental unit of matter, most of the substances people encounter in the world are not pure elements such as oxygen or iron. They are compounds in which atoms of more than one element joinusually in molecules. All molecules are composed of more than one atom, but not necessarily of more than one element: oxygen, for instance, generally appears in the form of molecules in which two oxygen atoms are bonded. Because of this, pure oxygen is represented by the chemical symbol O2, as opposed to the symbol for the element oxygen, which is simply O.

One of the most well-known molecular forms in the world is water, or H2O, composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The arrangement is extremely precise and never varies: scientists know, for instance, that the two hydrogen atoms join the oxygen atom (which is much larger than the hydrogen atoms) at an angle of 105°3. Since the oxygen atom is much larger than the two hydrogens, its shape can be compared to a basketball with two softballs attached.

Other molecules are much more complex than those of water, and some are much, much more complex, a fact reflected in the sometimes lengthy names and complicated symbolic representations required to identify their chemical components. On the other hand, not all materials are made up of molecules: salt, for instance, is an ionic solid, as discussed below.

Quantifying Atoms and Molecules

The nucleus of an atom is about 1013 cm in diameter, and the diameter of the entire atom is about 108 cmabout 0.0000003937 in. Obviously, special units are required for describing the size of atoms, and usually measurements are provided in terms of the angstrom, equal to 1010 m, or 108 cm. To put this on some sort of imaginable scale, there are 10 million angstroms in a millimeter.

Measuring the spatial dimensions of an atom, however, is not as important as measuring its massand naturally, the mass of an atom is also almost inconceivably small. For instance, it takes about 5.0 · 1023 carbon atoms to equal just one gram of mass. Again, the numbers boggle the mind, but the following may put this into perspective. We have already established just how tiny an angstrom is; now consider the following. If 5.0 · 1023 angstrom lengths were laid end to end, they would stretch for a total of about 107,765 round trips from Earth to the Sun!

It is obvious, then, that an entirely different unit should be used for measuring the mass of an atom, and for this purpose, chemists and other scientists use an atom mass unit (abbreviated amu). The latter is equal to 1.66 · 1024 g. Even so, scientists can hardly be expected to be constantly measuring the mass of individual atoms; rather, they rely on figures determined for the average atomic mass of a particular element.

Average atomic mass figures range from 1.008 amu for hydrogen to over 250 amu for elements of very high atomic numbers. Figures for average atomic mass can be used to determine the average mass of a molecule as well, simply by combining the average atomic mass figures for each atom the molecule contains. A water molecule, for instance, has an average mass equal to the average atomic mass of hydrogen multiplied by two, and added to the average atomic mass of oxygen.


Just as using average atomic mass is much more efficient than measuring the mass of individual atoms or molecules, scientists need a useful means for comparing atoms or molecules of different substancesand for doing so in such a way that they know they are analyzing equal numbers of particles. This cannot be done in terms of mass, because the number of atoms in each sample would vary: a gram of hydrogen, for instance, would contain about 12 times as many atoms as a gram of carbon, which has an average atomic mass of 12.01 amu. What is needed, instead, is a way to designate a certain number of atoms or molecules, such that accurate comparisons are possible.

In order to do this, scientists make use of a figure known as Avogadro's number. Named after Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856), it is equal to 6.022137 × 1023 Earlier, we established the almost inconceivable scale represented by the figure 5.0 · 1023; here we are confronted with a number 20% larger. But Avogadro's number, which is equal to 6,022,137 followed by 17 zeroes, is more than simply a mind-boggling series of digits.

In general terms, Avogadro's number designates the quantity of molecules (and sometimes atoms, if the substance in question is an element that, unlike oxygen, appears as single atoms) in a mole (abbreviated mol). A mole is the SI unit for "amount of substance," and is defined precisely as the number of carbon atoms in 12.01 g of carbon. It is here that the value of Avogadro's number becomes clear: as noted, carbon has an average atomic mass of 12.01 amu, and multiplication of the average atomic mass by Avogadro's number yields a figure in grams equal to the value of the average atomic mass in atomic mass units.


By comparison, a mole of helium has a molar mass of 4.003 g (0.01 lb) The molar mass of iron (that is, the mass of 1 mole of iron) is 55.85 g (0.12 lb) Note that there is not a huge ratio of difference between the molar mass of iron and that of helium: iron has a molar mass about 14 times greater. This, of course, seems very small in light of the observable differences between iron and helium: after all, who ever heard of a balloon filled with iron, or a skyscraper with helium girders?

The very striking differences between iron and helium, clearly, must come from something other than the molar mass differential between them. Of course, a mole of iron contains the same number of atoms as a mole of helium, but this says nothing about the relative density of the two substances. In terms of volumethat is, the amount of space that something occupiesthe difference is much more striking: the volume of a mole of helium is about 43,000 times as large as that of a mole of iron.

What this tells us is that the densities of iron and heliumthe amount of mass per unit of volumeare very different. This difference in density is discussed in the essay on Mass, Density, and Volume; here the focus is on a larger judgment that can be formed by comparing the two densities. Helium, of course, is almost always in the form of a gas: to change it to a solid requires a temperature near absolute zero. And iron is a solid, meaning that it only turns into a liquid at extraordinarily high temperatures. These differences in overall structure can, in turn, be attributed to the relative motion, attraction, and energy of the molecules in each.

Molecular Attraction and Motion

At the molecular level, every item of matter in the world is in motion, and the rate of that motion is a function of the attraction between molecules. Furthermore, the rate at which molecules move in relation to one another determines phase of matterthat is, whether a particular item can be described as solid, liquid, or gas. The movement of molecules generates kinetic energy, or the energy of movement, which is manifested as thermal energywhat people call "heat" in ordinary language. (The difference between thermal energy and heat is explained in the essay on Temperature and Heat.) In fact, thermal energy is the result of molecules' motion relative to one another: the faster they move, the greater the kinetic energy, and the greater the "heat."

When the molecules in a material move slowlymerely vibrating in placethey exert a strong attraction toward one another, and the material is called a solid. Molecules of liquid, by contrast, move at moderate speeds and exert a moderate attraction. A material substance whose molecules move at high speeds, and therefore exert little or no attraction, is known as a gas. In short, the weaker the attraction, the greater the rate of relative motionand the greater the amount of thermal energy the object contains.


Types of Solids

Particles of solids resist attempts to compress them, or push them together, and because of their close proximity, solid particles are fixed in an orderly and definite pattern. As a result, a solid usually has a definite volume and shape.

A crystalline solid is a type of solid in which the constituent parts are arranged in a simple, definite geometric pattern that is repeated in all directions. But not all crystalline solids are the same. Table salt is an example of an ionic solid: a form of crystalline solid that contains ions. When mixed with a solvent such as water, ions from the salt move freely throughout the solution, making it possible to conduct an electric current.

Regular table sugar (sucrose) is a molecular solid, or one in which the molecules have a neutral electric chargethat is, there are no ions present. Therefore, a solution of water and sugar would not conduct electricity. Finally, there are crystalline solids known as atomic solids, in which atoms of one element bond to one another. Examples include diamonds (made of pure carbon), silicon, and all metals.

Other solids are said to be amorphous, meaning that they possess no definite shape. Amorphous solidsan example of which is clayeither possess very tiny crystals, or consist of several varieties of crystal mixed randomly. Still other solids, among them glass, do not contain crystals.

Freezing and Melting


Because of their slow movement in relation to one another, solid particles exert strong attractions; yet as slowly as they move, solid particles do moveas is the case with all forms of matter at the atomic level. Whereas the particles in a liquid or gas move fast enough to be in relative motion with regard to one another, however, solid particles merely vibrate from a fixed position.

As noted earlier, the motion and attraction of particles in matter has a direct effect on thermal energy, and thus on heat and temperature. The cooler the solid, the slower and weaker the vibrations, and the closer the particles are to one another. Thus, most types of matter contract when freezing, and their density increases. Absolute zero, or 0K on the Kelvin scale of temperatureequal to 459.67°F (273°C)is the point at which vibration virtually ceases.

Note that the vibration virtually stops, but does not totally stop. In fact, as established in the third law of thermodynamics, absolute zero is impossible to achieve: thus, the relative motion of molecules never ceases. The lowest temperature actually achieved, at a Finnish nuclear laboratory in 1993, is 2.8 · 1010K, or 0.00000000028Kstill above absolute zero.


The behavior of water when frozen is interesting and exceptional. Above 39.2°F (4°C) water, like most substances, expands when heated. In other words, the molecules begin moving further apart as expected, becausein this temperature range, at leastwater behaves like other substances, becoming "less solid" as the temperature increases.

Between 32°F (0°C) and 39.2°F (4°C), however, water actually contracts. In this temperature range, it is very "cold" (that is, it has relatively little heat), but it is not frozen. The density of water reaches its maximumin other words, water molecules are as closely packed as they can beat 39.2°F; below that point, the density starts to decrease again. This is highly unusual: in most substances, the density continues to increase with lowered temperatures, whereas water is actually most dense slightly above the freezing point.

Below the freezing point, then, water expands, and therefore when water in pipes freezes, it may increase in volume to the point where it bursts the pipe. This is also the reason why ice floats on water: its weight is less than that of the water it has displaced, and thus it is buoyant. Additionally, the buoyant qualities of ice atop very cold water helps explain the behavior of lake water in winter; although the top of a lake may freeze, the entire lake rarely freezes solideven in the coldest of inhabited regions.

Instead of freezing from the bottom up, as it would if ice were less buoyant than the water, the lake freezes from the top downan important thing to remember when ice-fishing! Furthermore, water in general (and ice in particular) is a poor conductor of heat, and thus little of the heat from the water below it escapes. Therefore, the lake does not freeze completelyonly a layer at the topand this helps preserve animal and plant life in the body of water.


When heated, particles begin to vibrate more and more, and therefore move further apart. If a solid is heated enough, it loses its rigid structure and becomes a liquid. The temperature at which a solid turns into a liquid is called the melting point, and melting points are different for different substances. The melting point of a substance, incidentally, is the same as its freezing point: the difference is a matter of orientationthat is, whether the process is one of a solid melting to become a liquid, or of a liquid freezing to become a solid.

The energy required to melt 1 mole of a solid substance is called the molar heat of fusion. It can be calculated by the formula Q = smδT, where Q is energy, s is specific heat capacity, m is mass, and δT means change in temperature. (In the symbolic language often employed by scientists, the Greek letter δ, or delta, stands for "change in.") Specific heat capacity is measured in units of J/g · °C (joules per gram-degree Celsius), and energy in joules or kilojoules (kJ)that is, 1,000 joules.

In melting, all the thermal energy in a solid is used in breaking up the arrangement of crystals, called a lattice. This is why water melted from ice does not feel any warmer than the ice did: the thermal energy has been expended, and there is none left over for heating the water. Once all the ice is melted, however, the absorbed energy from the particlesnow moving at much greater speeds than when the ice was in a solid statecauses the temperature to rise.

For the most part, solids composed of particles with a higher average atomic mass require more energyand hence higher temperaturesto induce the vibrations necessary for melting. Helium, with an average atomic mass of 4.003 amu, melts or freezes at an incredibly low temperature: 457.6°F (272°C), or close to absolute zero. Water, for which, as noted earlier, the average atomic mass is the sum of the masses for its two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, has an average molecular mass of 18.016 amu. Ice melts (or water freezes) at much higher temperatures than helium: 32°F (0°C). Copper, with an average atomic mass of 63.55 amu, melts at much, much higher temperatures than water: 1,985°F (1,085°C).


The particles of a liquid, as compared to those of a solid, have more energy, more motion, andgenerally speakingless attraction to one another. The attraction, however, is still fairly strong: thus, liquid particles are in close enough proximity that the liquid resists attempts at compression.

On the other hand, their arrangement is loose enough that the particles tend to move around one another rather than simply vibrate in place the way solid particles do. A liquid is therefore not definite in shape. Due to the fact that the particles in a liquid are farther apart than those of a solid, liquids tend to be less dense than solids. The liquid phase of a substance thus tends to be larger in volume than its equivalent in solid form. Again, however, water is exceptional in this regard: liquid water actually takes up less space than an equal mass of frozen water.


When a liquid experiences an increase in temperature, its particles take on energy and begin to move faster and faster. They collide with one another, and at some point the particles nearest the surface of the liquid acquire enough energy to break away from their neighbors. It is at this point that the liquid becomes a gas or vapor.

As heating continues, particles throughout the liquid begin to gain energy and move faster, but they do not immediately transform into gas. The reason is that the pressure of the liquid, combined with the pressure of the atmosphere above the liquid, tends to keep particles in place. Those particles below the surface, therefore, remain where they are until they acquire enough energy to rise to the surface.

The heated particle moves upward, leaving behind it a hollow spacea bubble. A bubble is not an empty space: it contains smaller trapped particles, but its small mass, relative to that of the liquid it disperses, makes it buoyant. Therefore, a bubble floats to the top, releasing its trapped particles as gas or vapor. At that point, the liquid is said to be boiling.


The particles thus have to overcome atmospheric pressure as they rise, which means that the boiling point for any liquid depends in part on the pressure of the surrounding air. Normal atmospheric pressure (1 atm) is equal to 14 lb/in2 (1.013 × 105Pa), and is measured at sea level. The greater the altitude, the less the air pressure, because molecules of airsince air is a gas, and therefore its particles are fast-moving and non-attractiverespond less to Earth's gravitational pull. This is why airplanes require pressurized cabins to maintain an adequate oxygen supply; but even at altitudes much lower than the flight path of an airplane, differences in air pressure are noticeable.

It is for this reason that cooking instructions often vary with altitude. Atop Mt. Everest, Earth's highest peak at about 29,000 ft (8,839 m) above sea level, the pressure is approximately one-third of normal atmospheric pressure. Water boils at a much lower temperature on Everest than it does elsewhere: 158°F (70°C), as opposed to 212°F (100°C) at sea level. Of course, no one lives on the top of Mt. Everestbut people do live in Denver, Colorado, where the altitude is 5,577 ft (1,700 m) and the boiling point of water is 203°F (95°C).

Given the lower boiling point, one might assume that food would cook faster in Denver than in New York, Los Angeles, or in any city close to sea level. In fact, the opposite is true: because heated particles escape the water so much faster at high altitudes, they do not have time to acquire the energy needed to raise the temperature of the water. It is for this reason that a recipe may include a statement such as "at altitudes above XX feet, add XX minutes to cooking time."

If lowered atmospheric pressure means a lowered boiling point, what happens in outer space, where there is no atmospheric pressure? Liquids boil at very, very low temperatures. This is one of the reasons why astronauts have to wear pressurized suits: if they did not, their blood would boileven though space itself is incredibly cold.


Note that the process of changing a liquid to a gas is similar to that which occurs when a solid changes to a liquid: particles gain heat and therefore energy, begin to move faster, break free from one another, and pass a certain threshold into a new phase of matter. And just as the freezing and melting point for a given substance are the same temperaturethe only difference being one of orientationthe boiling point of a liquid transforming into a gas is the same as the condensation point for a gas turning into a liquid.

The behavior of water in boiling and condensation makes possible distillation, one of the principal methods for purifying sea water in various parts of the world. First the water is boiled, then it is allowed to cool and condense, thus forming water again. In the process, the water separates from the salt, leaving it behind in the form of brine. A similar separation takes place when salt water freezes: because salt, like most crystalline solids, has a much lower freezing point than water, very little of it remains joined to the water in ice. Instead, the salt takes the form of a briny slush.


A liquid that is vaporized, or any substance that exists normally as a gas, is quite different in physical terms from a solid or a liquid. This is illustrated by the much higher energy component in the molar heat of vaporization, or the amount of energy required to turn 1 mole of a liquid into a gas.

Consider, for instance, what happens to water when it experiences phase changes. Assuming that heat is added at a uniform rate, when ice reaches its melting point, there is only a relatively small period of time when the H2O is composed of both ice and liquid. But when the liquid reaches its boiling point, the water is present both as a liquid and a vapor for a much longer period of time. In fact, it takes almost seven times as much energy to turn liquid water into pure steam than it does to turn ice into purely liquid water. Thus, the molar heat of fusion for water is 6.02 kJ/mol, while the molar heat of vaporization is 40.6 kJ/mol.

Although liquid particles exert a moderate attraction toward one another, particles in a gas (particularly a substance that normally exists as a gas at ordinary temperatures on Earth) exert little to no attraction. They are thus free to move, and to move quickly. The overall shape and arrangement of gas is therefore random and indefiniteand, more importantly, the motion of gas particles provides much greater kinetic energy than is present in any other major form of matter on Earth.

The constant, fast, and random motion of gas particles means that they are regularly colliding and thereby transferring kinetic energy back and forth without any net loss of energy. These collisions also have the overall effect of producing uniform pressure in a gas. At the same time, the characteristics and behavior of gas particles indicate that they tend not to remain in an open container. Therefore, in order to have any pressure on a gasother than normal atmospheric pressureit is necessary to keep it in a closed container.

The Phase Diagram

The vaporization of water is an example of a change of phasethe transition from one phase of matter to another. The properties of any substance, and the points at which it changes phase, are plotted on what is known as a phase diagram. The phase diagram typically shows temperature along the x-axis, and pressure along the y-axis.

For simple substances, such as water and carbon dioxide (CO2), the solid form of the substance appears at a relatively low temperature and at pressures anywhere from zero upward. The line between solids and liquids, indicating the temperature at which a solid becomes a liquid at any pressure above a certain level, is called the fusion curve. Though it appears to be a more or less vertical line, it is indeed curved, indicating that at high pressures, a solid well below the normal freezing point may be melted to create a liquid.

Liquids occupy the area of the phase diagram corresponding to relatively high temperatures and high pressures. Gases or vapors, on the other hand, can exist at very low temperatures, but only if the pressure is also low. Above the melting point for the substance, gases exist at higher pressures and higher temperatures. Thus, the line between liquids and gases often looks almost like a 45° angle. But it is not a straight line, as its name, the vaporization curve, implies. The curve of vaporization demonstrates that at relatively high temperatures and high pressures, a substance is more likely to be a gas than a liquid.


There are several other interesting phenomena mapped on a phase diagram. One is the critical point, found at a place of very high temperature and pressure along the vaporization curve. At the critical point, high temperatures prevent a liquid from remaining a liquid, no matter how high the pressure.

At the same time, the pressure causes gas beyond that point to become increasingly more dense, but due to the high temperatures, it does not condense into a liquid. Beyond the critical point, the substance cannot exist in anything other than the gaseous state. The temperature component of the critical point for water is 705.2°F (374°C)at 218 atm, or 218 times ordinary atmospheric pressure. For helium, however, critical temperature is just a few degrees above absolute zero. This is, in part, why helium is rarely seen in forms other than a gas.


Another interesting phenomenon is the sublimation curve, or the line between solid and gas. At certain very low temperatures and pressures, a substance may experience sublimation, meaning that a gas turns into a solid, or a solid into a gas, without passing through a liquid stage.

A well-known example of sublimation occurs when "dry ice," made of carbon dioxide, vaporizes at temperatures above (78.5°C). Carbon dioxide is exceptional, however, in that it experiences sublimation at relatively high pressures that occur in everyday life: for most substances, the sublimation point transpires at such a low pressure point that it is seldom witnessed outside of a laboratory.


The phenomenon known as the triple point shows how an ordinary substance such as water or carbon dioxide can actually be a liquid, solid, and vaporall at once. Most people associate water as a gas or vapor (that is, steam) with very high temperatures. Yet, at a level far below normal atmospheric pressure, water can be a vapor at temperatures as low as 4°F (20 °C). (All of the pressure values in the discussion of water at or near the triple point are far below atmospheric norms: the pressure at which water turns into a vapor at 4°F, for instance, is about 0.001 atm.)

Just as water can exist as a vapor at low temperatures and low pressures, it is also possible for water at temperatures below freezing to remain liquid. Under enough pressure, ice melts and is thereby transformed from a solid to a liquid, at temperatures below its normal freezing point. On the other hand, if the pressure of ice falls below a very low threshold, it will sublimate.

The phase diagram of water shows a line between the solid and liquid states that is almost, but not quite, exactly perpendicular to the x-axis. But in fact, it is a true fusion curve: it slopes slightly upward to the left, indicating that solid ice turns into water with an increase of pressure. Below a certain level of pressure is the vaporization curve, and where the fusion curve intersects the vaporization curve, there is a place called the triple point. Just below freezing, in conditions equivalent to about 0.007 atm, water is a solid, liquid, and vapor all at once.

Other States of Matter


Principal among states of matter other than solid, liquid, and gas is plasma, which is similar to gas. (The term "plasma," when referring to the state of matter, has nothing to do with the word as it is often used, in reference to blood plasma.) As with gas, plasma particles collide at high speedsbut in plasma the speeds are even greater, and the kinetic energy levels even higher.

The speed and energy of these collisions is directly related to the underlying property that distinguishes plasma from gas. So violent are the collisions between plasma particles that electrons are knocked away from their atoms. As a result, plasma does not have the atomic structure typical of a gas; rather, it is composed of positive ions and electrons. Plasma particles are thus electrically charged, and therefore greatly influenced by electric and magnetic fields.

Formed at very high temperatures, plasma is found in stars. The reaction between plasma and atomic particles in the upper atmosphere is responsible for the aurora borealis, or "northern lights." Though found on Earth only in very small quantities, plasmaubiquitous in other parts of the universemay be the most plentiful of all the states of matter.


Among the quasi-states of matter discussed by scientists are several terms describing the structure in which particles are joined, rather than the attraction and relative movement of those particles. Thus "crystalline," "amorphous," and "glassy" are all terms to describe what may be individual states of matter; so too is "colloidal."

A colloid is a structure intermediate in size between a molecule and a visible particle, and it has a tendency to be dispersed in another mediumthe way smoke, for instance, is dispersed in air. Brownian motion describes the behavior of most colloidal particles. When one sees dust floating in a ray of sunshine through a window, the light reflects off colloids in the dust, which are driven back and forth by motion in the air otherwise imperceptible to the human senses.


The number of states or phases of matter is clearly not fixed, and it is quite possible that more will be discovered in outer space, if not on Earth. One intriguing candidate is called dark matter, so described because it neither reflects nor emits light, and is therefore invisible. In fact, luminous or visible matter may very well make up only a small fraction of the mass in the universe, with the rest being taken up by dark matter.

If dark matter is invisible, how do astronomers and physicists know it exists? By analyzing the gravitational force exerted on visible objects in such cases where there appears to be no visible object to account for that force. An example is the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It appears to be nothing more than a dark "halo," but in order to cause the entire galaxy to revolve around itin the same way that planets revolve around the Sun, though on a vastly larger scaleit must contain a staggering quantity of invisible mass.

The Bose-Einstein Condensate

Physicists at the Joint Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado, in 1995 revealed a highly interesting aspect of atomic behavior at temperatures approaching absolute zero. Some 70 years before, Einstein had predicted that, at extremely low temperatures, atoms would fuse to form one large "superatom." This hypothesized structure was dubbed the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) after Einstein and Satyendranath Bose (1894-1974), an Indian physicist whose statistical methods contributed to the development of quantum theory.

Cooling about 2,000 atoms of the element rubidium to a temperature just 170 billionths of a degree Celsius above absolute zero, the physicists succeeded in creating an atom 100 micrometers acrossstill incredibly small, but vast in comparison to an ordinary atom. The superatom, which lasted for about 15 seconds, cooled down all the way to just 20 billionths of a degree above absolute zero. The Colorado physicists won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 for their work.

In 1999, researchers in a lab at Harvard University also created a superatom of BEC, and used it to slow light to just 38 MPH (61.2 km/h)about 0.02% of its ordinary speed. Dubbed a "new" form of matter, the BEC may lead to a greater understanding of quantum mechanics, and may aid in the design of smaller, more powerful computer chips.

Some Unusual Phase Transitions

At places throughout this essay, references have been made variously to "phases" and "states" of matter. This is not intended to confuse, but rather to emphasize a particular point. Solids, liquids, and gases are referred to as "phases" because many (though far from all) substances on Earth regularly move from one phase to another.

There is absolutely nothing incorrect in referring to "states of matter." But "phases of matter" is used in the present context as a means of emphasizing the fact that substances, at the appropriate temperature and pressure, can be solid, liquid, or gas. The phases of matter, in fact, can be likened to the phases of a person's life: infancy, babyhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age. The transition between these stages is indefinite, yet it is easy enough to say when a person is at a certain stage.


A liquid crystal is a substance that, over a specific range of temperature, displays properties both of a liquid and a solid. Below this temperature range, it is unquestionably a solid, and above this range it is just as certainly a liquid. In between, however, liquid crystals exhibit a strange solid-liquid behavior: like a liquid, their particles flow, but like a solid, their molecules maintain specific crystalline arrangements.

The cholesteric class of liquid crystals is so named because the spiral patterns of light through the crystal are similar to those which appear in cholesterols. Depending on the physical properties of a cholesteric liquid crystal, only certain colors may be reflected. The response of liquid crystals to light makes them useful in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) found on laptop computer screens, camcorder views, and in other applications.


One interesting and useful application of phase change is the liquefaction of gases, or the change of gas into liquid by the reduction in its molecular energy levels. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), the latter a mixture of by-products obtained from petroleum and natural gas, are among the examples of liquefied gas in daily use. In both cases, the volume of the liquefied gas is far less than it would be if the gas were in a vaporized state, thus enabling ease and economy of transport.

Liquefied gases are used as heating fuel for motor homes, boats, and homes or cabins in remote areas. Other applications of liquefied gases include liquefied oxygen and hydrogen in rocket engines; liquefied oxygen and petroleum used in welding; and a combination of liquefied oxygen and nitrogen used in aqualung devices. The properties of liquefied gases figure heavily in the science of producing and studying low-temperature environments. In addition, liquefied helium is used in studying the behavior of matter at temperatures close to absolute zero.


Coal gasification, as one might discern from the name, is the conversion of coal to gas. Developed before World War II, it fell out of favor after the war, due to the lower cost of oil and natural gas. However, increasingly stringent environmental regulations imposed by the federal government on industry during the 1970s, combined with a growing concern for the environment on the part of the populace as a whole, led to a resurgence of interest in coal gasification.

Though widely used as a fuel in power plants, coal, when burned by ordinary means, generates enormous air pollution. Coal gasification, on the other hand, makes it possible to burn "clean" coal. Gasification involves a number of chemical reactions, some exothermic or heat-releasing, and some endothermic or heat-absorbing. At one point, carbon monoxide is released in an exothermic reaction, then mixed with hydrogen released from the coal to create a second exothermic reaction. The energy discharged in these first two reactions is used to initiate a third, endothermic, reaction.

The finished product of coal gasification is a mixture containing carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen, and other substances, and thisrather than ordinary coalis burned as a fuel. The composition of the gases varies according to the process used. Products range from coal synthesis gas and medium-Btu gas (both composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, though combined in different forms) to substitute natural gas, which consists primarily of methane.

Not only does coal gasification produce a clean-burning product, but it does so without the high costs associated with flue-gas desulfurization systems. The latter, often called "scrubbers," were originally recommended by the federal government to industry, but companies discovered that coal gasification could produce the same results for much less money. In addition, the waste products from coal gasification can be used for other purposes. At the Cool Water Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle Plant, established in Barstow, California, in 1984, sulfur obtained from the reduction of sulfur dioxide is sold off for about $100 a ton.

The Chemical Dimension to Changes of Phase

Throughout much of this essay, we have discussed changes of phase primarily in physical terms; yet clearly these changes play a significant role in chemistry. Furthermore, coal gasification serves to illustrate the impact chemical processes can have on changes of state.

Much earlier, figures were given for the melting points of copper, water, and helium, and these were compared with the average atomic mass of each. Those figures, again, are:

Average Atomic Mass and Melting Points of a Sample Gas, Liquid, and Solid

  • Helium: 4.003 amu; 457.6°F (210°C)
  • Water: 40.304 amu 32°F (0°C)
  • Copper: 63.55 amu; 1,985°F (1,085°C).

Something seems a bit strange about those comparisons: specifically, the differences in melting point appear to be much more dramatic than the differences in average atomic mass. Clearly, another factor is at worka factor that relates to the difference in the attractions between molecules in each. Although the differences between solids, liquids, and gases are generally physical, the one described herea difference between substancesis clearly chemical in nature.

To discuss this in the detail it deserves would require a lengthy digression on the chemical dimensions of intermolecular attraction. Nonetheless, it is possible here to offer at least a cursory answer to the question raised by these striking differences in response to temperature.

Dipoles, Electron Seas, and London Dispersion

Water molecules are polar, meaning that one area of a water molecule is positively charged, while another area has a negative charge. Thus the positive side of one molecule is drawn to the negative side of another, and vice versa, which gives water a much stronger intermolecular bond than, for instance, oil, in which the positive and negative charges are evenly distributed throughout the molecule.

Yet the intermolecular attraction between the dipoles (as they are called) in water is not nearly as strong as the bond that holds together a metal. Particles in copper or other metals "float" in a tightly packed "sea" of highly mobile electrons, which provide a bond that is powerful, yet lacking in a firm directional orientation. Thus metals are both strong and highly malleable (that is, they can be hammered very flat without breaking.)

Water, of course, appears most often as a liquid, and copper as a solid, precisely because water has a very high boiling point (the point at which it becomes a vapor) and copper has a very high melting point. But consider helium, which has the lowest freezing point of any element: just above absolute zero. Even then, a pressure equal to 25 times that of normal atmospheric pressure is required to push it past the freezing point.

Helium and other Group 8 or Group 18 elements, as well as non-polar molecules such as oils, are bonded by what is called London dispersion forces. The latter, as its name suggests, tends to keep molecules dispersed, and induces instantaneous dipoles when most of the electrons happen to be on one side of an atom. Of course, this happens only for an infinitesimal fraction of time, but it serves to create a weak attraction. Only at very low temperatures do London dispersion forces become strong enough to result in the formation of a solid.


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The temperature, defined as 0K on the Kelvin scale, at which the motion of molecules in a solid virtually ceases. Absolute zero is equal to 459.67°F (273.15°C).


The smallest particle of an element that retains the chemical and physical properties of the element. An atom can exist either alone or in combination with other atoms in a molecule. Atoms are madeup of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Anatom that loses or gains one or more electrons, and thus has a net charge, is an ion. Atoms that have the same number of protonsthat is, are of the same elementbut differ in number of neutrons, are known as isotopes.


An SI unit (abbreviated amu), equal to 1.66 · 1024 g, for measuring the mass of atoms.


The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. Since this number is different for each element, elements are listed on the periodic table in order of atomic number.


A form of crystalline solid in which atoms of one element bond to one another. Examples include diamonds (made of pure carbon), silicon, and all metals.


A figure used by chemists to specify the massin atomic mass unitsof the average atom in a large sample. If a substance is a compound, the average atomic mass of all atoms in a molecule of that substance must be added together to yield the average molecular mass of that substance.


A figure, named after Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856), equal to 6.022137× 1023. Avogadro's number indicates the number of atoms, molecules, or other elementary particles in a mole.


The transition from one phase of matter to another.


A coordinate, plotted on a phase diagram, above which a substance cannot exist in anything other than the gaseous state. Located at a position of very high temperature and pressure, the critical point marks the termination of the vaporization curve.


A substance made up of atoms of more than one element. These atoms are usually, but not always, joined inmolecules.


A type of solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement that is repeated in all directions. Types of crystalline solids include atomicsolids, ionic solids, and molecular solids.


A substance made up of only one kind of atom.


A negatively charged particle in an atom. Electrons, which spin around the protons and neutrons that make up the atom's nucleus, constitute a very small portion of the atom's mass. In most atoms, the number of electrons and protons is the same, thus canceling out one another. When an atom loses one or more electrons, howeverthus becoming anionit acquires a net electric charge.


The ability to accomplishworkthat is, the exertion of force over a given distance to displace or move an object.


The boundary between solid and liquid for any given substance as plotted on a phase diagram.


A phase of matter in which molecules move at high speeds, and therefore exert little or no attraction toward one another.


An atom or atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons, and thus has a net electric charge.


A form of crystalline solid that contains ions. When mixed with a solvent such as water, ions from table saltan example of an ionic solidmove freely throughout the solution, making it possible to conduct an electric current.


Atoms that have an equal number of protons, and hence are of the same element, but differ in their number of neutrons.


The energy that an object possesses by virtue of its movement.


A phase of matter in which molecules move at moderate speeds, and therefore exert moderate attractions toward one another.


Physical substance that occupies space, has mass, is composed of atoms (or in the case of subatomic particles, is part of an atom), and is convertible to energy.


The amount of energy required to melt 1 mole of a solid substance.


The amount of energy required to turn 1 mole of a liquid into a gas. Because gases possess much more energy than liquids or solids, molar heat of vaporization is usually much higher than molar heat of fusion.


The mass, in grams, of 1 mole of a given substance. The value in grams of molar mass is always equal to the value, in atomic mass units, of the average atomic mass of that substance: thus carbon has a molar mass of 12.01 g, and anaverage atomic mass of 12.01 amu.


The SI fundamental unit for "amount of substance." A mole is, generally speaking, Avogadro's number of atoms, molecules, or other elementary particles; however, in the more precise SI definition, a mole is equal to the number of carbon atoms in 12.01 g of carbon.


A form of crystalline solid in which the molecules have a neutral electric charge, meaning that there are no ions present as there are in an ionicsolid. Table sugar (sucrose) is an example of a molecular solid. When mixed with a solvent such as water, the resulting solution does not conduct electricity.


A group of atoms, usually of more than one element, joined in astructure.


A subatomic particle that has no electric charge. Neutrons are found at the nucleus of an atom, alongside protons.


The center of an atom, a region where protons and neutrons are located, and around which electrons spin.


A chart, plotted for any particular substance, identifying the particular phase of matter for that substance at a given temperature and pressure level. A phase diagram usually shows temperature along the x-axis, and pressure along the y-axis.


The various forms of material substance (matter), which are defined primarily in terms of the behavior exhibited by their atomic or molecular structures. On Earth, three principal phases of matter exist, namely solid, liquid, and gas. Other forms of matter include plasma.


One of the phases of matter, closely related to gas. Plasma is found primarily in stars. Containing neither atoms nor molecules, plasma is made up of electrons and positive ions.


A positively charged particle in an atom. Protons and neutrons, which together form the nucleus around which electrons spin, have approximately the same massa mass that is many times greater than that of an electron. The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom is the atomic number of an element.


A phase of matter in which molecules move slowly relative to one another, and therefore exert strong attractions toward one another.


The boundary between solid and gas for any given substance, as plotted on a phase diagram.


In chemistry and other sciences, the term "system" usually refers to any set of interactions isolated from the rest of the universe. Anything outside of the system, including all factors and forces irrelevant to a discussion of that system, is known as the environment.


"Heat" energy, a form of kinetic energy produced by the relative motion of atoms or molecules. The greater the movement of these particles, the greater the thermal energy.


The boundary between liquid and gas for any given substance as plotted on a phase diagram.

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