Back To CourseGED Science: Tutoring Solution
34 chapters | 724 lessons
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 70,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Free 5-day trial
As you remove heat from a substance, its temperature drops. The particles of the substance move slower and slower. What happens if you keep removing heat from the substance? You will reach a temperature at which all particle motion almost stops. The temperature is called absolute zero, and it's the lowest possible temperature. It is equal to -273oC (-459oF). You cannot have a temperature lower than absolute zero. You can think of absolute zero as the temperature where molecules are completely frozen, with no motion. Technically, molecules never become absolutely motionless, but the kinetic energy is so small it might as will be zero.
You might say that a fire is hot and a freezer is cold. But the temperatures of everyday objects are only a small part of the wide range of temperatures present in the universe, as shown in this figure:
Temperatures in the universe range from just above absolute zero to more than 10 to the 10th power K. Temperatures do not appear to have an upper limit. The interior of the Sun is at least 1.5x10 to the 7th power C. Supernova cores are even hotter. On the other hand, liquefied gases can very cold. For example, helium liquefies at -269oC. Even colder temperatures can be reached by making use of special properties of solids, helium isotopes, and atoms and lasers.
Temperatures do, however, have a lower limit. Generally, materials contract as they cool. If an ideal atomic gas in a balloon were cooled to -273.15oC, it would contract in such a way that it occupied a volume that is only the size of the atoms, and the atoms would become motionless. At this temperature, all the thermal energy that could be removed has been removed from the gas, and the temperature cannot be reduced any further. Therefore, there can be no temperature less than -273.15oC, which is called absolute zero.
The Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales have little or nothing to do with the fundamental nature of the concept of temperature. After all, the freezing point of water at Earth's atmospheric pressure has no obvious relationship to any basic aspect of the Universe. Presumably, an alien scientist on a planet that has no water will devise a thermometer that measures temperature equally well. More to the point, could there be a universal zero of temperature linked to the very essence of matter and energy, a zero that all scientists (human or otherwise) might discover? The answer is yes, and it is called the absolute zero of temperature.
Let's look at the history of temperature measurements to better understand the nature of absolute zero. Like so many other physical quantities, temperature was measured long before it was understood. Galileo appears to have invented (ca.1592) the first device for indicating 'degrees of hotness'. As shown in the image below, he simply placed the end of an inverted narrow-necked flask, warmed in his hands, into a bowl of water (or wine). As it cooled, the liquid was drawn up, partially filling the neck.
This was Galileo's thermoscope. It is not called a thermometer, because the scale was arbitrary. The egg-sized globe at the top is the sensor. The gas within it expands or contracts, and the liquid level rises and falls.
Air captured in the bulb at the top either expanded or contracted when subsequently heated or cooled, and the column fell or rose proportionately. Much the same effect can be seen by putting an inflated balloon in the freezer. The gas molecules inside the balloon keep it puffed up by constantly bombarding the inner walls. Cooling the gas, removing kinetic energy from its molecules, lessens their bouncing and causing the balloon to collapse.
The medical applications of the thermometer were recognized almost immediately, and normal body temperature became a focus of interest. In 1631, J. Rey, a French physician, inverted Galileo's device, filling the bulb with water and leaving much of the stem with air in it. In that configuration, which is more like today's thermometer, the liquid's expansion operates the device. Within 70 years of Galileo's invention, sealed pocket-sized thermometers containing either alcohol or mercury were in use.
By exploring the behavior of matter with the aid of the thermometer, it soon became evident that there were a number of physical occurrences that happened at fixed temperatures. In 1665, Boyle, Hooke, and Huygens, European natural scientists, independently recognized that that fact could provide a reliable reference point for any thermometer. Hooke suggested using the freezing point of water, and Huygens offered its boiling point. In 1694, an Italian scientist Carlo Rinaldini used both the freezing and boiling points of water to standardize two widely spaced points on his thermometer.
As we will see, the manner in which any material - mercury, alcohol, water, glass, whatever - expands on heating is characteristic of that material. What this means practically is that thermometers that differ in their physical construction and yet have the same two fixed reference points, will necessarily agree exactly only at those two points.
The range of temperatures we deal with is extensive, and there is now a whole arsenal of different kinds of thermometers, each with its own virtues. The familiar mercury-in-glass instrument is only useful between the points where mercury freezes and glass melts. Moreover, it can be used reliably only when its presence doesn't affect the temperature being determined. If you want to measure the temperature of a flea or a thermonuclear fireball, the old mercury-in-glass standby will not be of much help. Accordingly, there are electrical resistance thermometers, optical thermometers, thermocouples, and constant-volume gas thermometers, to name a few. Of these, the standard for accuracy and reproducibility is still the constant-volume gas instrument as shown in the figure below, though it is large, slow, delicate, and inconvenient.
Sometime around 1702, Guillaume Amontons devised an improvement on Galileo's thermoscope that has evolved into the modern constant-volume gas thermometer shown here.
Let's have a look at what happens with a typical gas as its temperature is lowered.
The image below shows the behavior of a gas at a constant volume. As the gas is cooled, its atoms lose some of their thermal energy; they travel more slowly and collide with the chamber walls less frequently and less forcefully. As a result, the pressure in the chamber drops. All gases behave essentially the same way. Their P versus T graphs have different slopes, but they are all straight lines, and they all head toward -273.15oC.
The important feature is that the graph is a straight line -- the pressure falls linearly until the gas liquefies and the process abruptly ends. Remarkably, all gases behave nearly the same way. Moreover, when the straight line for any gas is extended downward, it crosses the zero-pressure axis at a temperature of -273.15oC, or absolute zero.
Similarly, if the pressure is kept constant, the volume of a gas will collapse linearly, again approaching the zero-volume axis at the same -273.15oC as in the figure below. This point is now believed to be the very limit of low temperature: absolute zero.
As the temperature of a gas is lowered, its atoms are less energetic. To keep the pressure constant, the volume must decrease, which will make it easier for atoms to strike the chamber walls frequently, thereby sustaining the pressure. All gases shrink toward zero volume at T = -273.15oC.
Amontons, studying the behavior of a number of gases, showed that each volume changed by the same percentage for a given change in temperature. Astutely, he recognized that a decrease in pressure down to zero would accompany a decrease in temperature down to some limiting value of coldness. Later, J.H. Lambert repeated these experiments with greater accuracy, concluding (ca. 1779) that there was indeed a temperature limit. 'Now a degree of heat equal to zero', wrote Lambert, 'is really what may be called absolute cold.'
Absolute zero certainly seems the place to begin a temperature scale. Still, the idea received little attention for well over half a century. Then, in 1848, William Thomson (later to become Lord Kelvin), formalized the idea theoretically. On the basis of very different thermodynamic considerations, he proposed an absolute temperature scale that turned out to be in perfect agreement with the results from the constant volume gas thermometer.
Today, the practical laboratory temperature reference is the triple point of water: the unique circumstance of temperature (0.01oC) and pressure (610Pa) where solid, liquid, and vapor coexist. Absolute zero (-273.15oC) and the triple point (0.01oC) are separated by 273.16 Celsius degrees.
The lowest possible temperature is absolute zero. You cannot have a temperature lower than absolute zero. When an absolute zero is reached, all particle motion effectively stops.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Did you know… We have over 95 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseGED Science: Tutoring Solution
34 chapters | 724 lessons