Gases - Real-life applications

Gases Real Life Applications 2862
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Introduction to the Gas Laws

English chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who made a number of important contributions to chemistry—including his definition and identification of elements—seems to have been influenced by Torricelli. If so, this is an interesting example of ideas passing from one great thinker to another: Torricelli, a student of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), was no doubt influenced by Galileo's thermoscope.

Like Torricelli, Boyle conducted tests involving the introduction of mercury to a tube closed at the other end. The tube Boyle used was shaped like the letter J, and it was so long that he had to use the multi-story foyer of his house as a laboratory. At the tip of the curved bottom was an area of trapped gas, and into the top of the tube, Boyle introduced increasing quantities of mercury. He found that the greater the volume of mercury, the greater the pressure on the gas, and the less the volume of gas at the end of the tube. As a result, he formulated the gas law associated with his name.

The gas laws are not a set of government regulations concerning use of heating fuel; rather, they are a series of statements concerning the behavior of gases in response to changes in temperature, pressure, and volume. These were derived, beginning with Boyle's law, during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries by scientists whose work is commemorated through the association of their names with the laws they discovered. In addition to Boyle, these men include fellow English chemists John Dalton (1766-1844) and William Henry (1774-1836); French physicists and chemists J. A. C. Charles (1746-1823) and Joseph Gay-Lussac (1778-1850); and Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856).

There is a close relationship between Boyle's, Charles's, and Gay-Lussac's laws. All of these treat one of three parameters—temperature, pressure, or volume—as fixed quantities in order to explain the relationship between the other two variables. Avogadro's law treats two of the parameters as fixed, thereby establishing a relationship between volume and the number of molecules in a gas. The ideal gas law sums up these four laws, and the kinetic theory of gases constitutes an attempt to predict the behavior of gases based on these laws. Finally, Dalton's and Henry's laws both relate to partial pressure of gases.

Boyle's, Charles's, and Gay-Lussac's Laws


Boyle's law holds that in isothermal conditions (that is, a situation in which temperature is kept constant), an inverse relationship exists between the volume and pressure of a gas. (An inverse relationship is a situation involving two variables, in which one of the two increases in direct proportion to the decrease in the other.) In this case, the greater the pressure, the less the volume and vice versa. Therefore, the product of the volume multiplied by the pressure remains constant in all circumstances.

Charles's law also yields a constant, but in this case the temperature and volume are allowed to vary under isobarometric conditions—that is, a situation in which the pressure remains the same. As gas heats up, its volume increases, and when it cools down, its volume reduces accordingly. Hence, Charles established that the ratio of temperature to volume is constant.


In about 1787, Charles made an interesting discovery: that at 0°C (32°F), the volume of gas at constant pressure drops by 1/273 for every Celsius degree drop in temperature. This seemed to suggest that the gas would simply disappear if cooled to −273°C (−459.4°F), which, of course, made no sense. In any case, the gas would most likely become first a liquid, and then a solid, long before it reached that temperature.

The man who solved the quandary raised by Charles's discovery was born a year after Charles died. He was William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907); in 1848, he put forward the suggestion that it was molecular translational energy—the energy generated by molecules in motion—and not volume, that would become zero at −273°C. He went on to establish what came to be known as the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature.

Sometimes known as the absolute temperature scale, the Kelvin scale is based not on the freezing point of water, but on absolute zero—the temperature at which molecular motion comes to a virtual stop. This is −273.15°C (−459.67°F). In the Kelvin scale, which uses neither the term nor the symbol for "degree," absolute zero is designated as 0K.

Scientists prefer the Kelvin scale to the Celsius, and certainly to the Fahrenheit, scales. If the Kelvin temperature of an object is doubled, its average molecular translational energy has doubled as well. The same cannot be said if the temperature were doubled from, say, 10°C to 20°C, or from 40°F to 80°F, since neither the Celsius nor the Fahrenheit scale is based on absolute zero.


From Boyle's and Charles's law, a pattern should be emerging: both treat one parameter (temperature in Boyle's, pressure in Charles's) as unvarying, while two other factors are treated as variables. Both, in turn, yield relationships between the two variables: in Boyle's law, pressure and volume are inversely related, whereas in Charles's law, temperature and volume are directly related.

In Gay-Lussac's law, a third parameter, volume, is treated as a constant, and the result is a constant ratio between the variables of pressure and temperature. According to Gay-Lussac's law, the pressure of a gas is directly related to its absolute temperature.

Avogadro's Law

Gay-Lussac also discovered that the ratio in which gases combine to form compounds can be expressed in whole numbers: for instance, water is composed of one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. In the language of modern chemistry, this is expressed as a relationship between molecules and atoms: one molecule of water contains one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms.

In the early nineteenth century, however, scientists had yet to recognize a meaningful distinction between atoms and molecules, and Avogadro was the first to achieve an understanding of the difference. Intrigued by the whole-number relationship discovered by Gay-Lussac, Avogadro reasoned that one liter of any gas must contain the same number of particles as a liter of another gas. He further maintained that gas consists of particles—which he called molecules—that in turn consist of one or more smaller particles.

In order to discuss the behavior of molecules, Avogadro suggested the use of a large quantity as a basic unit, since molecules themselves are very small. Avogadro himself did not calculate the number of molecules that should be used for these comparisons, but when that number was later calculated, it received the name "Avogadro's number" in honor of the man who introduced the idea of the molecule. Equal to 6.022137 · 10 23 , Avogadro's number designates the quantity of atoms or molecules (depending on whether the substance in question is an element or a compound) in a mole.

Today the mole (abbreviated mol), the SI unit for "amount of substance," is defined precisely as the number of carbon atoms in 12.01 g of carbon. The term "mole" can be used in the same way we use the word "dozen." Just as "a dozen" can refer to twelve cakes or twelve chickens, so "mole" always describes the same number of molecules. The ratio of mass between a mole of Element A and Element B, or Compound A and Compound B, is the same as the ratio between the mass of Atom A and Atom B, or Molecule A and Molecule B. Avogadro's law describes the connection between gas volume and number of moles. According to Avogadro's law, if the volume of gas is increased under isothermal and isobarometric conditions, the number of moles also increases. The ratio between volume and number of moles is therefore a constant.

The Ideal Gas Law

Once again, it is easy to see how Avogadro's law can be related to the laws discussed earlier. Like the other three, this one involves the parameters of temperature, pressure, and volume, but it also introduces a fourth—quantity of molecules (that is, number of moles). In fact, all the laws so far described are brought together in what is known as the ideal gas law, sometimes called the combined gas law.

The ideal gas law can be stated as a formula, pV = nRT, where p stands for pressure, V for volume, n for number of moles, and T for temperature. R is known as the universal gas constant, a figure equal to 0.0821 atm · liter/mole · K. (Like most figures in chemistry, this one is best expressed in metric rather than English units.)

Given the equation pV = nRT and the fact that R is a constant, it is possible to find the value of any one variable—pressure, volume, number of moles, or temperature—as long as one knows the value of the other three. The ideal gas law also makes it possible to discern certain relationships: thus, if a gas is in a relatively cool state, the product of its pressure and volume is proportionately low; and if heated, its pressure and volume product increases correspondingly.

The Kinetic Theory of Gases

From the preceding gas laws, a set of propositions known collectively as the kinetic theory of gases has been derived. Collectively, these put forth the proposition that a gas consists of numerous molecules, relatively far apart in space, which interact by colliding. These collisions are responsible for the production of thermal energy, because when the velocity of the molecules increases—as it does after collision—the temperature increases as well.

There are five basic postulates to the kinetic theory of gases:

  • 1. Gases consist of tiny molecular or atomic particles.
  • 2. The proportion between the size of these particles and the distances between them is so small that the individual particles can be assumed to have negligible volume.
  • 3. These particles experience continual random motion. When placed in a container, their collisions with the walls of the container constitute the pressure exerted by the gas.
  • 4. The particles neither attract nor repel one another.
  • 5. The average kinetic energy of the particles in a gas is directly related to absolute temperature.

These observations may appear to resemble statements made earlier concerning the differences between gases, liquids, and solids in terms of molecular behavior. If so, that is no accident: the kinetic theory constitutes a generally accepted explanation for the reasons why gases behave as they do. Kinetic theories do not work as well for explaining the behaviors of solids and liquids; nonetheless, they do go a long way toward identifying the molecular properties inherent in the various phases of matter.

Laws of Partial Pressure

In addition to all the gas laws so far discussed, two laws address the subject of partial pressure. When two or more gases are present in a container, partial pressure is the pressure that one of them exerts if it alone is in the container.

Dalton's law of partial pressure states that the total pressure of a gas is equal to the sum of its partial pressures. As noted earlier, air is composed mostly of nitrogen and oxygen. Along with these are small components, carbon dioxide, and gases collectively known as the rare or noble gases: argon, helium, krypton, neon, radon, and xenon. Hence, the total pressure of a given quantity of air is equal to the sum of the pressures exerted by each of these gases.

Henry's law states that the amount of gas dissolved in a liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of the gas above the surface of the solution. This applies only to gases such as oxygen and hydrogen that do not react chemically to liquids. On the other hand, hydrochloric acid will ionize when introduced to water: one or more of its electrons will be removed, and its atoms will convert to ions, which are either positive or negative in charge.

Applications of Dalton's and Henry's Laws


The gas laws are not just a series of abstract statements. Certainly, they do concern the behavior of ideal as opposed to real gases. Like all scientific models, they remove from the equation all outside factors, and treat specific properties in isolation. Yet, the behaviors of the ideal gases described in the gas laws provide a key to understanding the activities of real gases in the real world. For instance, the concept of partial pressure helps scuba divers avoid a possibly fatal sickness.

Imagine what would happen if a substance were to bubble out of one's blood like carbon dioxide bubbling out of a soda can, as described below. This is exactly what can happen to an undersea diver who returns to the surface too quickly: nitrogen rises up within the body, producing decompression sickness—known colloquially as "the bends." This condition may manifest as itching and other skin problems, joint pain, choking, blindness, seizures, unconsciousness, permanent neurological defects such as paraplegia, and possibly even death.

If a scuba diver descending to a depth of 150 ft (45.72 m) or more were to use ordinary air in his or her tanks, the results would be disastrous. The high pressure exerted by the water at such depths creates a high pressure on the air in the tank, meaning a high partial pressure on the nitrogen component in the air. The result would be a high concentration of nitrogen in the blood, and hence the bends.

Instead, divers use a mixture of helium and oxygen. Helium gas does not dissolve well in blood, and thus it is safer for a diver to inhale this oxygen-helium mixture. At the same time, the oxygen exerts the same pressure that it would normally—in other words, it operates in accordance with Dalton's observations concerning partial pressure.


Inside a can or bottle of carbonated soda is carbon dioxide gas (CO 2 ), most of which is dissolved in the drink itself. But some of it is in the space (sometimes referred to as "head space") that makes up the difference between the volume of the soft drink and the volume of the container.

At the bottling plant, the soda manufacturer adds high-pressure carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) to the head space in order to ensure that more CO 2 will be absorbed into the soda itself. This is in accordance with Henry's law: the amount of gas (in this case CO 2 ) dissolved in the liquid (soda) is directly proportional to the partial pressure of the gas above the surface of the solution—that is, the CO 2 in the head space. The higher the pressure of the CO 2 in the head space, the greater the amount of CO 2 in the drink itself; and the greater the CO 2 in the drink, the greater the "fizz" of the soda.

Once the container is opened, the pressure in the head space drops dramatically. Once again, Henry's law indicates that this drop in pressure will be reflected by a corresponding drop in the amount of CO 2 dissolved in the soda. Over a period of time, the soda will release that gas, and eventually, it will go "flat."


A fire extinguisher consists of a long cylinder with an operating lever at the top. Inside the cylinder is a tube of carbon dioxide surrounded by a quantity of water, which creates pressure around the CO 2 tube. A siphon tube runs vertically along the length of the extinguisher, with one opening in the water near the bottom. The other end opens in a chamber containing a spring mechanism attached to a release valve in the CO 2 tube.

The water and the CO 2 do not fill the entire cylinder: as with the soda can, there is "head space," an area filled with air. When the operating lever is depressed, it activates the spring mechanism, which pierces the release valve at the top of the CO 2 tube. When the valve opens, the CO 2 spills out in the "head space," exerting pressure on the water. This high-pressure mixture of water and carbon dioxide goes rushing out of the siphon tube, which was opened when the release valve was depressed. All of this happens, of course, in a fraction of a second—plenty of time to put out the fire.


Aerosol cans are similar in structure to fire extinguishers, though with one important difference. As with the fire extinguisher, an aerosol can includes a nozzle that depresses a spring mechanism, which in turn allows fluid to escape through a tube. But instead of a gas cartridge surrounded by water, most of the can's interior is made up of the product (for instance, deodorant), mixed with a liquid propellant.

The "head space" of the aerosol can is filled with highly pressurized propellant in gas form, and, in accordance with Henry's law, a corresponding proportion of this propellant is dissolved in the product itself. When the nozzle is depressed, the pressure of the propellant forces the product out through the nozzle.

A propellant, as its name implies, propels the product itself through the spray nozzle when the nozzle is depressed. In the past, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—manufactured compounds containing carbon, chlorine, and fluorine atoms—were the most widely used form of propellant. Concerns over the harmful effects of CFCs on the environment, however, has led to the development of alternative propellants, most notably hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), CFC-like compounds that also contain hydrogen atoms.

Applications of Boyle's, Charles's, and Gay-Lussac's Laws


A number of interesting results occur when gases experience a change in temperature, some of them unfortunate and some potentially lethal. In these instances, it is possible to see the gas laws—particularly Boyle's and Charles's—at work.

There are numerous examples of the disastrous effects that result from an increase in the temperature of combustible gases, including natural gas and petroleum-based products. In addition, the pressure on the gases in aerosol cans makes the cans highly explosive—so much so that discarded cans at a city dump may explode on a hot summer day. Yet, there are other instances when heating a gas can produce positive effects.

A hot-air balloon, for instance, floats because the air inside it is not as dense than the air outside. According to Charles's law, heating a gas will increase its volume, and since gas molecules exert little attraction toward one another, they tend to "spread out" even further with an increase of volume. This, in turn, creates a significant difference in density between the air in the balloon and the air outside, and as a result, the balloon floats.

Although heating a gas can be beneficial, cooling a gas is not always a wise idea. If someone were to put a bag of potato chips into a freezer, thinking this would preserve their flavor, he would be in for a disappointment. Much of what maintains the flavor of the chips is the pressurization of the bag, which ensures a consistent internal environment so that preservative chemicals, added during the manufacture of the chips, can keep them fresh. Placing the bag in the freezer causes a reduction in pressure, as per Gay-Lussac's law, and the bag ends up a limp version of its former self.

Propane tanks and tires offer an example of the pitfalls that may occur by either allowing a gas to heat up or cool down by too much. Because most propane tanks are made according to strict regulations, they are generally safe, but it is not entirely inconceivable that the extreme heat of a summer day could cause a defective tank to burst. An increase in temperature leads to an increase in pressure, in accordance with Gay-Lussac's law, and could lead to an explosion.

Because of the connection between heat and pressure, propane trucks on the highways during the summer are subjected to weight tests to ensure that they are not carrying too much gas. On the other hand, a drastic reduction in temperature could result in a loss in gas pressure. If a propane tank from Florida were transported by truck during the winter to northern Canada, the pressure is dramatically reduced by the time it reaches its destination.


In operating a car, we experience two applications of the gas laws. One of these is what makes the car run: the combustion of gases in the engine, which illustrates the interrelation of volume, pressure, and temperature expressed in the laws attributed to Boyle, Charles, and Gay-Lussac. The other is, fortunately, a less frequent phenomenon—but it can and does save lives. This is the operation of an airbag, which depends, in part, on the behaviors explained in Charles's law.

When the driver of a modern, fuel-injection automobile pushes down on the accelerator, this activates a throttle valve that sprays droplets of gasoline mixed with air into the engine. The mixture goes into the cylinder, where the piston moves up, compressing the gas and air. While the mixture is still at a high pressure, the electric spark plug produces a flash that ignites the gasoline-air mixture. The heat from this controlled explosion increases the volume of air, which forces the piston down into the cylinder. This opens an outlet valve, causing the piston to rise and release exhaust gases.

As the piston moves back down again, an inlet valve opens, bringing another burst of gasoline-air mixture into the chamber. The piston, whose downward stroke closed the inlet valve, now shoots back up, compressing the gas and air to repeat the cycle. The reactions of the gasoline and air to changes in pressure, temperature, and volume are what move the piston, which turns a crankshaft that causes the wheels to rotate.


So much for moving—what about stopping? Most modern cars are equipped with an airbag, which reacts to sudden impact by inflating. This protects the driver and front-seat passenger, who, even if they are wearing seatbelts, may otherwise be thrown against the steering wheel or dashboard.

In order to perform its function properly, the airbag must deploy within 40 milliseconds (0.04 seconds) of impact. Not only that, but it has to begin deflating before the body hits it. If a person's body, moving forward at speeds typical in an automobile accident, were to smash against a fully inflated airbag, it would feel like hitting concrete—with all the expected results.

The airbag's sensor contains a steel ball attached to a permanent magnet or a stiff spring. The spring or magnet holds the ball in place through minor mishaps when an airbag is not warranted—for instance, if a car were simply to be "tapped" by another in a parking lot. But in a case of sudden deceleration, the magnet or spring releases the ball, sending it down a smooth bore. The ball flips a switch, turning on an electrical circuit. This in turn ignites a pellet of sodium azide, which fills the bag with nitrogen gas.

At this point, the highly pressurized nitrogen gas molecules begin escaping through vents. Thus, as the driver's or rider's body hits the airbag, the deflation of the bag is moving it in the same direction that the body is moving—only much, much more slowly. Two seconds after impact, which is an eternity in terms of the processes involved, the pressure inside the bag has returned to 1 atm.

The chemistry of the airbag is particularly interesting. The bag releases inert, or non-reactive, nitrogen gas, which poses no hazard to human life; yet one of the chemical ingredients in the airbag is so lethal that some environmentalist groups have begun to raise concerns over its presence in airbags. This is sodium azide (NaN 3 ), one of three compounds—along with potassium nitrate (KNO 3 ) and silicon dioxide (SiO 2 )—present in an airbag prior to inflation.

The sodium azide and potassium nitrate react to one another, producing a burst of hot nitrogen gas in two back-to-back reactions. In the fractions of a second during which this occurs, the airbag becomes like a solid-rocket booster, experiencing a relatively slow detonation known as "deflagration."

The first reaction releases nitrogen gas, which fills the bag, while the second reaction leaves behind the by-products potassium oxide (K 2 O) and sodium oxide (Na 2 O). These combine with the silicon dioxide to produce a safe, stable compound known as alkaline silicate. The latter, similar to the sand used for making glass, is all that remains in the airbag after the nitrogen gas has escaped.


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Also read article about Gases from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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Apr 20, 2016 @ 4:16 pm
this article is way too long when you have to write 2+ pages of notes :( interesting though :)
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Sep 3, 2016 @ 3:03 am
Made my chapter about the topic interesting.
Adeline G Goen
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Apr 25, 2019 @ 9:21 pm
Fantastic article-- I appreciate learning the gas laws a lot more now. Your writing is easy to understand and I like your examples of gases in daily life-- such good work you've done!
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Jun 7, 2020 @ 9:21 pm
The chemistry of the airbag is particularly interesting. The bag releases inert, or non-reactive, nitrogen gas, which poses no hazard to human life; yet one of the chemical ingredients in the airbag is so lethal that some environmentalist groups have begun to raise concerns over its presence in airbags.

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