Most liquids follow a fairly predictable pattern of gradual volume increase, as a response to an increase in temperature, and volume decrease, in response to a decrease in temperature. Indeed, the coefficient of volume expansion for a liquid generally tends to be higher than for a solid, and—with one notable exception discussed below—a liquid will contract when frozen.
The behavior of gasoline pumped on a hot day provides an example of liquid thermal expansion in response to an increase in temperature. When it comes from its underground tank at the gas station, the gasoline is relatively cool, but it will warm when sitting in the tank of an already warm car. If the car's tank is filled and the vehicle left to sit in the sun—in other words, if the car is not driven after the tank is filled—the gasoline might very well expand in volume faster than the fuel tank, overflowing onto the pavement.
Another example of thermal expansion on the part of a liquid can be found inside the car's radiator. If the radiator is "topped off" with coolant on a cold day, an increase in temperature could very well cause the coolant to expand until it overflows. In the past, this produced a problem for car owners, because car engines released the excess volume of coolant onto the ground, requiring periodic replacement of the fluid.
Later-model cars, however, have an overflow container to collect fluid released as a result of volume expansion. As the engine cools down again, the container returns the excess fluid to the radiator, thus, "recycling" it. This means that newer cars are much less prone to overheating as older cars. Combined with improvements in radiator fluid mixtures, which act as antifreeze in cold weather and coolant in hot, the "recycling" process has led to a significant decrease in breakdowns related to thermal expansion.
One good reason not to use pure water in one's radiator is that water has a far higher coefficient of volume expansion than a typical engine coolant. This can be particularly hazardous in cold weather, because frozen water in a radiator could expand enough to crack the engine block.
In general, water—whose volume expansion coefficient in the liquid state is 2.1, and 0.5 in the solid state—exhibits a number of interesting characteristics where thermal expansion is concerned. If water is reduced from its boiling point—212°F (100°C) to 39.2°F (4°C) it will steadily contract, like any other substance responding to a drop in temperature. Normally, however, a substance continues to become denser as it turns from liquid to solid; but this does not occur with water.
At 32.9°F, water reaches it maximum density, meaning that its volume, for a given unit of mass, is at a minimum. Below that temperature, it "should" (if it were like most types of matter) continue to decrease in volume per unit of mass, but, in fact, it steadily begins to expand. Thus, it is less dense, with a greater volume per unit of mass, when it reaches the freezing point. It is for this reason that when pipes freeze in winter, they often burst—explaining why a radiator filled with water could be a serious problem in very cold weather.
In addition, this unusual behavior with regard to thermal expansion and contraction explains why ice floats: solid water is less dense than the liquid water below it. As a result, frozen water stays at the top of a lake in winter; since ice is a poor conductor of heat, energy cannot escape from the water below it in sufficient amounts to freeze the rest of the lake water. Thus, the water below the ice stays liquid, preserving plant and animal life.
As discussed, liquids expand by larger factors than solids do. Given the increasing amount of molecular kinetic energy for a liquid as compared to a solid, and for a gas as compared to a liquid, it should not be surprising, then, to learn that gases respond to changes in temperature with a volume change even greater than that of liquids. Of course, where a gas is concerned, "volume" is more difficult to measure, because a gas simply expands to fill its container. In order for the term to have any meaning, pressure and temperature must be specified as well.
A number of the gas laws describe the three parameters for gases: volume, temperature, and pressure. Boyle's law, for example, holds that in conditions of constant temperature, an inverse relationship exists between the volume and pressure of a gas: the greater the pressure, the less the volume, and vice versa. Even more relevant to the subject of thermal expansion is Charles's law.
Charles's law states that when pressure is kept constant, there is a direct relationship between volume and temperature. As a gas heats up, its volume increases, and when it cools down, its volume reduces accordingly. Thus, if an air mattress is filled in an air-conditioned room, and the mattress is then taken to the beach on a hot day, the air inside will expand. Depending on how much its volume increases, the expansion of the hot air could cause the mattress to "pop."
Whereas liquids and solids vary significantly with regard to their expansion coefficients, most gases follow more or less the same pattern of expansion in response to increases in temperature. The predictable behavior of gases in these situations led to the development of the constant gas thermometer, a highly reliable instrument against which other thermometers—including those containing mercury (see below)—are often gauged.
In a volume gas thermometer, an empty container is attached to a glass tube containing mercury. As gas is released into the empty container, this causes the column of mercury to move upward. The difference between the former position of the mercury and its position after the introduction of the gas shows the difference between normal atmospheric pressure and the pressure of the gas in the container. It is, then, possible to use the changes in volume on the part of the gas as a measure of temperature. The response of most gases, under conditions of low pressure, to changes in temperature is so uniform that volume gas thermometers are often used to calibrate other types of thermometers.
Many solids are made up of crystals, regular shapes composed of molecules joined to one another as though on springs. A spring that is pulled back, just before it is released, is an example of potential energy, or the energy that an object possesses by virtue of its position. For a crystalline solid at room temperature, potential energy and spacing between molecules are relatively low. But as temperature increases and the solid expands, the space between molecules increases—as does the potential energy in the solid.
In fact, the responses of solids to changes in temperature tend to be more dramatic, at least when they are seen in daily life, than are the behaviors of liquids or gases under conditions of thermal expansion. Of course, solids actually respond less to changes in temperature than fluids do; but since they are solids, people expect their contours to be immovable. Thus, when the volume of a solid changes as a result of an increase in thermal energy, the outcome is more noteworthy.
An everyday example of thermal expansion can be seen in the kitchen. Almost everyone has had the experience of trying unsuccessfully to budge a tight metal lid on a glass container, and after running hot water over the lid, finding that it gives way and opens at last. The reason for this is that the high-temperature water causes the metal lid to expand. On the other hand, glass—as noted earlier—has a low coefficient of expansion. Otherwise, it would expand with the lid, which would defeat the purpose of running hot water over it. If glass jars had a high coefficient of expansion, they would deform when exposed to relatively low levels of heat.
Another example of thermal expansion in a solid is the sagging of electrical power lines on a hot day. This happens because heat causes them to expand, and, thus, there is a greater length of power line extending from pole to pole than under lower temperature conditions. It is highly unlikely, of course, that the heat of summer could be so great as to pose a danger of power lines breaking; on the other hand, heat can create a serious threat with regard to larger structures.
Most large bridges include expansion joints, which look rather like two metal combs facing one another, their teeth interlocking. When heat causes the bridge to expand during the sunlight hours of a hot day, the two sides of the expansion joint move toward one another; then, as the bridge cools down after dark, they begin gradually to retract. Thus the bridge has a built-in safety zone; otherwise, it would have no room for expansion or contraction in response to temperature changes. As for the use of the comb shape, this staggers the gap between the two sides of the expansion joint, thus minimizing the bump motorists experience as they drive over it.
Expansion joints of a different design can also be found in highways, and on "highways" of rail. Thermal expansion is a particularly serious problem where railroad tracks are concerned, since the tracks on which the trains run are made of steel. Steel, as noted earlier, expands by a factor of 12 parts in 1 million for every Celsius degree change in temperature, and while this may not seem like much, it can create a serious problem under conditions of high temperature.
Most tracks are built from pieces of steel supported by wooden ties, and laid with a gap between the ends. This gap provides a buffer for thermal expansion, but there is another matter to consider: the tracks are bolted to the wooden ties, and if the steel expands too much, it could pull out these bolts. Hence, instead of being placed in a hole the same size as the bolt, the bolts are fitted in slots, so that there is room for the track to slide in place slowly when the temperature rises.
Such an arrangement works agreeably for trains that run at ordinary speeds: their wheels merely make a noise as they pass over the gaps, which are rarely wider than 0.5 in (0.013 m). A high-speed train, however, cannot travel over irregular track; therefore, tracks for high-speed trains are laid under conditions of relatively high tension. Hydraulic equipment is used to pull sections of the track taut; then, once the track is secured in place along the cross ties, the tension is distributed down the length of the track.
A thermometer gauges temperature by measuring a temperature-dependent property. A thermostat, by contrast, is a device for adjusting the temperature of a heating or cooling system. Both use the principle of thermal expansion in their operation. As noted in the example of the metal lid and glass jar above, glass expands little with changes in temperature; therefore, it makes an ideal container for the mercury in a thermometer. As for mercury, it is an ideal thermometric medium—that is, a material used to gauge temperature—for several reasons. Among these is a high boiling point, and a highly predictable, uniform response to changes in temperature.
In a typical mercury thermometer, mercury is placed in a long, narrow sealed tube called a capillary. Because it expands at a much faster rate than the glass capillary, mercury rises and falls with the temperature. A thermometer is calibrated by measuring the difference in height between mercury at the freezing point of water, and mercury at the boiling point of water. The interval between these two points is then divided into equal increments in accordance with one of the well-known temperature scales.
In a thermostat, the central component is a bimetallic strip, consisting of thin strips of two different metals placed back to back. One of these metals is of a kind that possesses a high coefficient of linear expansion, while the other metal has a low coefficient. A temperature increase will cause the side with a higher coefficient to expand more than the side that is less responsive to temperature changes. As a result, the bimetallic strip will bend to one side.
When the strip bends far enough, it will close an electrical circuit, and, thus, direct the air conditioner to go into action. By adjusting the thermostat, one varies the distance that the bimetallic strip must be bent in order to close the circuit. Once the air in the room reaches the desired temperature, the high-coefficient metal will begin to contract, and the bimetallic strip will straighten. This will cause an opening of the electrical circuit, disengaging the air conditioner.
In cold weather, when the temperature-control system is geared toward heating rather than cooling, the bimetallic strip acts in much the same way—only this time, the high-coefficient metal contracts with cold, engaging the heater. Another type of thermostat uses the expansion of a vapor rather than a solid. In this case, heating of the vapor causes it to expand, pushing on a set of brass bellows and closing the circuit, thus, engaging the air conditioner.
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