thermodynamics, science of the relationship between heat, work, temperature, and energy. In broad terms, thermodynamics deals with the transfer of energy from one place to another and from one form to another. The key concept is that heat is a form of energy corresponding to a definite amount of mechanical work.
Heat was not formally recognized as a form of energy until about 1798, when Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson), a British military engineer, noticed that limitless amounts of heat could be generated in the boring of cannon barrels and that the amount of heat generated is proportional to the work done in turning a blunt boring tool. Rumford’s observation of the proportionality between heat generated and work done lies at the foundation of thermodynamics. Another pioneer was the French military engineer Sadi Carnot, who introduced the concept of the heat-engine cycle and the principle of reversibility in 1824. Carnot’s work concerned the limitations on the maximum amount of work that can be obtained from a steam engine operating with a high-temperature heat transfer as its driving force. Later that century, these ideas were developed by Rudolf Clausius, a German mathematician and physicist, into the first and second laws of thermodynamics, respectively.
The most important laws of thermodynamics are:
- The zeroth law of thermodynamics. When two systems are each in thermal equilibrium with a third system, the first two systems are in thermal equilibrium with each other. This property makes it meaningful to use thermometers as the “third system” and to define a temperature scale.
- The first law of thermodynamics, or the law of conservation of energy. The change in a system’s internal energy is equal to the difference between heat added to the system from its surroundings and work done by the system on its surroundings.
- The second law of thermodynamics. Heat does not flow spontaneously from a colder region to a hotter region, or, equivalently, heat at a given temperature cannot be converted entirely into work. Consequently, the entropy of a closed system, or heat energy per unit temperature, increases over time toward some maximum value. Thus, all closed systems tend toward an equilibrium state in which entropy is at a maximum and no energy is available to do useful work.
- The third law of thermodynamics. The entropy of a perfect crystal of an element in its most stable form tends to zero as the temperature approaches absolute zero. This allows an absolute scale for entropy to be established that, from a statistical point of view, determines the degree of randomness or disorder in a system.
Although thermodynamics developed rapidly during the 19th century in response to the need to optimize the performance of steam engines, the sweeping generality of the laws of thermodynamics makes them applicable to all physical and biological systems. In particular, the laws of thermodynamics give a complete description of all changes in the energy state of any system and its ability to perform useful work on its surroundings.
This article covers classical thermodynamics, which does not involve the consideration of individual atoms or molecules. Such concerns are the focus of the branch of thermodynamics known as statistical thermodynamics, or statistical mechanics, which expresses macroscopic thermodynamic properties in terms of the behaviour of individual particles and their interactions. It has its roots in the latter part of the 19th century, when atomic and molecular theories of matter began to be generally accepted.