What is a Calorimeter? - Definition, Uses & Equation

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  • 0:04 Definition of a Calorimeter
  • 0:51 Types & Uses of a Calorimeter
  • 3:01 Equation of a Calorimeter
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Allyn Torres

Allyn has taught high school chemistry, and has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

In this lesson you will learn about calorimeters. The definition of a calorimeter, uses for calorimeters, and the calorimetry equation will be discussed.

Definition of a Calorimeter

Here's a familiar scenario for many of us: you purchase your favorite junk food and demolish the entire bag or box in one sitting. Just out of curiosity, you take a glance at the nutrition information on the back of the package, and your full stomach drops. It turns out that you just ate more calories with this one snack than you should in one day. Have you ever wondered just exactly how the manufacturer of the food item knows how many calories it contains? Thanks to calorimeters, manufacturers are able to tell us exactly how many calories we're consuming when we eat their product.

A calorimeter is used to measure the enthalpy, the heat energy, of a reaction. Calorimeters can vary in quality. Simple calorimeters are used in high school chemistry classrooms, but much more sophisticated calorimeters are used in industry.

Types & Uses of a Calorimeter

There are many uses for many different types of calorimeters. We'll discuss two of the most common calorimeters and their uses.

1. Coffee Cup Calorimeter

A basic coffee cup calorimeter typically consists of a styrofoam cup, an insulated lid, and a thermometer through a hole in the lid. It's typically filled with water. Calorimeters measure the energy transferred between the water in the cup and an object that's placed into the water.

Coffee cup calorimeters are often used in high school chemistry calorimetry labs. A specific mass of water is poured into the styrofoam cup, and the temperature of the water is recorded. An object or substance is quickly placed into the water, and the lid is replaced. After a minute or two, the temperature is measured again. This change in temperature can be used to find the enthalpy of fusion (the energy required to freeze or condense), enthalpy of dissolution, or the specific heat of an object (the amount of energy needed to change the temperature of one gram of the substance by 1 °C). Each substance has a unique specific heat.

A limitation to this type of calorimeter is that styrofoam is not a perfect insulator. Some energy will be lost to the surroundings. Due to their quality, the use of coffee cup calorimeters is usually restricted to the classroom.

2. Bomb Calorimeter

A bomb calorimeter is much more sophisticated than a coffee cup calorimeter. Bomb calorimeters consist of a large outer container made of a metal that does not readily conduct heat. This container is usually filled with water or oil. There is a thermometer and a stirrer through the top of the outer container. There is a smaller inner container that holds the sample being tested. Wires for an electric current are inside the inner container.

Bomb calorimeters are used to measure the energy of combustion (burning) reactions. A current of electricity is run into the inner container to burn the sample. The temperature readings of the water in the outer container can then be used to find the energy of the combustion of the sample being tested. This type of calorimeter is used to find the calorie content of specific foods. Bomb calorimeters have also been used to measure how efficient steam engines are.

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