Posts Tagged ‘ideal gas equation’


In my previous post JH van ‘t Hoff and the Gaseous Theory of Solutions, I related how van ‘t Hoff deduced a thermodynamically exact relation between osmotic pressure and the vapor pressures of pure solvent and solvent in solution, and then abandoned it in favor of an erroneous idea which seemed to possess greater aesthetic appeal, on account of a chance encounter with a colleague in an Amsterdam street.

Rendered in modern notation, the thermodynamically exact equation van ‘t Hoff deduced in his Studies in Chemical Dynamics (1884), was


Following his flawed moment of inspiration upon learning the results of osmotic experiments conducted by Wilhelm Pfeffer, he leaped to the conclusion that the law of dilute solutions was formally identical with the ideal gas law


It would seem van ‘t Hoff was so enamored with the idea of solutions and gases obeying the same fundamental law, that he failed to notice that the latter equation is actually a special case of the former. Viewed from this perspective, the latter’s resemblance to the gas law is entirely coincidental; it arises solely from a sequence of approximations applied to the original equation.

As a footnote to history, CarnotCycle lays out the path by which the latter equation can be reached from the former, and shows how accuracy reduces commensurately with simplification.

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We begin with van ‘t Hoff’s thermodynamically exact equation from the Studies in Chemical Dynamics

ts06 (1)

where Π is the osmotic pressure, V1 is the partial molal volume of the solvent in the solution, p0 is the vapor pressure of the pure solvent and p is the vapor pressure of the solvent in the solution.

Assuming an ideal solution, in the sense that Raoult’s law is obeyed, then


where x1 and x2 are the mole fractions of solvent and solute respectively. So for an ideal solution, equation 1 becomes


If the ideal solution is also dilute, the mole fraction of the solute is small and hence


so that


For a dilute solution x2 approximates to n2/n1, where n2 and n1 are the moles of solute and solvent, respectively, in the solution. The above equation may therefore be written


In dilute solution, the partial molal volume of the solvent V1 is generally identical with the ordinary molar volume of the solvent. The product V1n1 is then the total volume of solvent in the solution, and V1n1/n2 is the volume of solvent per mole of solute. Representing this quantity by V’, the above equation becomes

ae07 (2)

which is identical with the empirical equation proposed by HN Morse in 1905. For an extremely dilute solution the volume V’ may be replaced by the volume V of the solution containing 1 mole of solute; under these conditions we have

ts04 (3)

which is the van ‘t Hoff equation.

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It is instructive to compare the osmotic pressures calculated from the numbered equations shown above and those obtained by experiment. It is seen that Eq.1, which involves measured vapor pressures, is in good agreement with experiment at all concentrations. Eq.3 fails in all but the most dilute solutions, while Eq.2 represents only a modest improvement.


These figures give a measure of van ‘t Hoff’s talent as a theoretician in deducing Eq.1, and the error into which he fell when abandoning it in favor of Eq.3.

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Mouse-over links to works referred to in this post

Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff Studies in Chemical Dynamics


Historical background

If you received formal tuition in physical chemistry at school, then it’s likely that among the first things you learned were the 17th/18th century gas laws of Mariotte and Gay-Lussac (Boyle and Charles in the English-speaking world) and the equation that expresses them: PV = kT.

It may be that the historical aspects of what is now known as the ideal (perfect) gas equation were not covered as part of your science education, in which case you may be surprised to learn that it took 174 years to advance from the pressure-volume law PV = k to the combined gas law PV = kT.


The lengthy timescale indicates that putting together closely associated observations wasn’t regarded as a must-do in this particular era of scientific enquiry. The French physicist and mining engineer Émile Clapeyron eventually created the combined gas equation, not for its own sake, but because he needed an analytical expression for the pressure-volume work done in the cycle of reversible heat engine operations we know today as the Carnot cycle.


The first appearance in print of the combined gas law, in Mémoire sur la Puissance Motrice de la Chaleur (Memoir on the Motive Power of Heat, 1834) by Émile Clapeyron

Students sometimes get in a muddle about combining the gas laws, so for the sake of completeness I will set out the procedure. Beginning with a quantity of gas at an arbitrary initial pressure P1 and volume V1, we suppose the pressure is changed to P2 while the temperature is maintained at T1. Applying the Mariotte relation (PV)T = k, we write


The pressure being kept constant at P2 we now suppose the temperature changed to T2; the volume will then change from Vx to the final volume V2. Applying the Gay-Lussac relation (V/T)P = k, we write


Substituting Vx in the original equation:




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Differences of opinion

In the mid-19th century, the ideal gas equation – or rather the ideal gas itself – was the cause of no end of trouble among those involved in developing the new science of thermodynamics. The argument went along the lines that since no real gas was ever perfect, was it legitimate to base thermodynamic theory on the use of a perfect gas as the working substance in the Carnot cycle? Joule, Clausius, Rankine, Maxwell and van der Waals said yes it was, while Mach and Thomson said no it wasn’t.

With thermometry on his mind, Thomson actually got quite upset. Here’s a sample outpouring from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“… a mere quicksand has been given as a foundation of thermometry, by building from the beginning on an ideal substance called a perfect gas, with none of its properties realized rigorously by any real substance, and with some of them unknown, and utterly unassignable, even by guess.”


Joule (inset) and Thomson may have had their differences, but it didn’t stop them from becoming the most productive partnership in the history of thermodynamics

It seems strange that the notion of an ideal gas, as a theoretical convenience at least, caused this violent division into believers and disbelievers, when everyone agreed that the behavior of all real gases approaches a limit as the pressure approaches zero. This is indeed how the universal gas constant R was computed – by extrapolation from pressure-volume measurements made on real gases. There is no discontinuity between the measured and limiting state, as the following diagram demonstrates:


Experiments on real gases show that


where v is the molar volume and i signifies ice-point. The universal gas constant is defined by the equation


so for real gases


The behavior of n moles of any gas as the pressure approaches zero may thus be represented by


The notion of an ideal gas is founded on this limiting state, and is defined as a gas that obeys this equation at all pressures. The equation of state of an ideal gas is therefore


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William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, in the 1850s

Testing Mayer’s assumption

The notion of an ideal gas was not the only thing troubling William Thomson at the start of the 1850s. He also had a problem with real gases. This was because he was simultaneously engaged in a quest for a scale of thermodynamic temperature that was independent of the properties of any particular substance.

What he needed was to find a property of a real gas that would enable him to
a) prove by thermodynamic argument that real gases do not obey the ideal gas law
b) calculate the absolute temperature from a temperature measured on a (real) gas scale

And he found such a property, or at least he thought he had found it, in the thermodynamic function (∂U/∂V)T.

In the final part of his landmark paper, On the Dynamical Theory of Heat, which was read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Monday 15 December 1851, Thomson presented an equation which served his purpose. In modern notation it reads:


This is a powerful equation indeed, since it enables any equation of state of a PVT system to be tested by relating the mechanical properties of a gas to a thermodynamic function of state which can be experimentally determined.

If the equation of state is that of an ideal gas (PV = nRT), then



This defining property of an ideal gas, that its internal energy is independent of volume in an isothermal process, was an assumption made in the early 1840s by Julius Robert Mayer of Heilbronn, Germany in developing what we now call Mayer’s relation (Cp – CV = PΔV). Thomson was keen to disprove this assumption, and with it the notion of the ideal gas, by demonstrating non-zero values for (∂U/∂V)T.

In 1845 James Joule had tried to verify Mayer’s assumption in the famous experiment involving the expansion of air into an evacuated cylinder, but the results Joule obtained – although appearing to support Mayer’s claim – were deemed unreliable due to experimental design weaknesses.


The equipment with which Joule tried to verify Mayer’s assumption, (∂U/∂V)T = 0. The calorimeter at the rear looks like a solid plate construction but is in fact hollow. This can be ascertained by tapping it – which the author of this blogpost has had the rare opportunity to do.

Thomson had meanwhile been working on an alternative approach to testing Mayer’s assumption. By 1852 he had a design for an apparatus and had arranged with Joule to start work in Manchester in May of that year. This was to be the Joule-Thomson experiment, which for the first time demonstrated decisive differences from ideal behavior in the behavior of real gases.

Mayer’s assumption was eventually shown to be incorrect – to the extent of about 3 parts in a thousand. But this was an insignificant finding in the context of Joule and Thomson’s wider endeavors, which would propel experimental research into the modern era and herald the birth of big science.

Curiously, it was not the fact that (∂U/∂V)T = 0 for an ideal gas that enabled the differences in real gas behavior to be shown in the Joule-Thomson experiment. It was the other defining property of an ideal gas, that its enthalpy H is independent of pressure P in an isothermal process. By parallel reasoning


If the equation of state is that of an ideal gas (PV = nRT), then



Since the Joule-Thomson coefficient (μJT) is defined


and the second term on the right is zero for an ideal gas, μJT must also be zero. Unlike a real gas therefore, an ideal gas cannot exhibit Joule-Thomson cooling or heating.

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Finding a way to define absolute temperature

But to return to Thomson and his quest for a scale of absolute temperature. The equation he arrived at in his 1851 paper,


besides enabling any equation of state of a PVT system to be tested, also makes it possible to give an exact definition of absolute temperature independently of the behavior of any particular substance.

The argument runs as follows. Given the temperature readings, t, of any arbitrary thermometer (mercury thermometer, bolometer, whatever..) the task is to express the absolute temperature T as a function of t. By direct measurement, it may be found how the behavior of some appropriate substance, e.g. a gas, depends on t and either V or P. Introducing t and V as the independent variables in the above equation instead of T and V, we have


where (∂U/∂V)t, (∂P/∂t)V and P represent functions of t and V, which can be experimentally determined. Separating the variables so that both terms in T are on the left, the equation can then be integrated:


Integrating between the ice point and the steam point


This completely determines T as a function of t.

But as we have already seen, there was a catch to this argumentation – namely that (∂U/∂V) could not be experimentally determined under isothermal conditions with sufficient accuracy.

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The Joule-Thomson coefficient provides the key

Thomson’s means of circumventing this problem was the steady state Joule-Thomson experiment, which measured upstream and downstream temperature and pressure, and enabled the Joule-Thomson coefficient, μJT = (∂T/∂P)H, to be computed.

It should be borne in mind however that when Joule and Thomson began their work in 1852, they were not aware that their cleverly-designed experiment was subject to isenthalpic conditions. It was the Scottish engineer and mathematician William Rankine who first proved in 1854 that the equation of the curve of free expansion in the Joule-Thomson experiment was d(U+PV) = 0.

William John Macquorn Rankine (1820-1872)

William John Macquorn Rankine (1820-1872)

As for the Joule-Thomson coefficient itself, it was the crowning achievement of a decade of collaboration, appearing in an appendix to Joule and Thomson’s final joint paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1862. They wrote it in the form


where the upper symbol in the derivative denotes “thermal effect”, and K denotes thermal capacity at constant pressure of a unit mass of fluid.

The equation is now usually written


By the method applied previously, this equation can be expressed in terms of an empirical t-scale and the absolute T-scale:


where C’P is the heat capacity of the gas as measured on the empirical t-scale, i.e. C’P = CP(dT/dt). Cancelling (dT/dt) and separating the variables so that both terms in T are on the left, the equation becomes:


Integrating between the ice point and the steam point


This completely determines T as a function of t, with all the terms under the integral capable of experimental determination to a sufficient level of accuracy.