Specific Heat Capacity of Water & Other Solvents: Comparison & Examples

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Have you ever thought about how much energy our oceans absorb from the Sun? Why don't they boil, especially in hot, tropical areas? This lesson will answer that question by looking at the specific heat capacity of water as well as other solvents.

What Is Specific Heat Capacity?

The sun mercilessly beats down on the earth. Energy, in the form of light and heat, bombards our planet daily, particularly in the tropical regions near the equator. Yet, even small bodies of water, such as lakes and streams remain primarily in a liquid phase. We don't see our lakes, rivers, or oceans boiling on the surface of the earth. The reason for this is a property of water called specific heat capacity.

Specific heat capacity is how much heat a substance can absorb before it changes temperature. Heat is the amount of thermal energy present, while temperature is how fast molecules are moving in the substance (a measure of the kinetic energy of a substance). When you heat a substance, the molecules move faster. As the molecules move faster they move further apart and the temperature increases.

If you can put a lot of heat into a substance, but it doesn't increase the temperature very much, that substance has a high specific heat capacity. If you add heat to a substance and the temperature increases rapidly, it is a substance with a low specific heat. Specific heat is vital to life on Earth, how we heat and cool our homes, as well as the production of electricity. Today, we're going to look at the specific heat of water and other solvents.

Specific Heat Capacity of Water

Water is one of the most amazing solvents on Earth. Life cannot exist without water. Beyond its unique chemical properties, water's high specific heat capacity is essential for regulating global temperatures.

Water has a high specific heat.

Specific heat water

That means for every 4.184 J of energy added to one gram of water, the temperature of the water will increase by one degree Celsius. This is one of the highest specific heat capacities of all solvents.

How is this essential for life on our planet? As we stated earlier our oceans don't boil despite the intense heat from the sun. This is due to the high specific heat capacity of water. Water can absorb a lot of energy without changing much in temperature. So, the large amount of water on the earth absorbs plenty of heat from the sun, but the temperature of that water remains relatively stable, allowing it to stay liquid. If water had a low specific heat capacity, our oceans and seas would boil and dry up and life on Earth would not be possible.

The high specific heat of water prevents the oceans from boiling
ocean

Humans benefit not only from the high specific heat capacity of water in an ecological sense, but we also have harnessed it for industrial purposes. Nuclear energy has been used as an alternative to burning fossil fuels for the production of electricity. However, nuclear reactions produce huge amounts of energy (much of it as heat) and need to be tightly controlled to prevent a nuclear meltdown. Water is used as a coolant to remove excess heat from the reactor.

Water is useful as a coolant in nuclear power plants
nuclear power plant

Specific Heat Capacity of Other Solvents

So how does water compare to other useful solvents?

Ammonia

If you've ever enjoyed a cold glass of milk or a bowl of ice cream, you've been dependent on a solvent called ammonia to keep your dairy products cool. Ammonia has a specific heat of:

Specific heat ammonia

This is slightly higher than water. Ammonia is commonly used as a coolant in large refrigeration systems, such as the food processing industry that makes and stores dairy and other perishable food products. Because of its high specific heat capacity, it's able to take in large amounts of heat, but experience little change in temperature, keeping our frozen treats cold.

Ethanol

Ethanol has a specific heat of:

Specific heat ethanol

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