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Physical Properties of Matter: definitions and examples

Sydney Baxter, Derrick Arrington, Gretchen Graef
  • Author
    Sydney Baxter

    Sydney has taught high-school and university level science lessons for over 5 years. She has a Masters degree in Marine Biology from the University of Salento and an Honours Bachelor degree from the University of Guelph. She has been working for a world-renowned fisheries conservationist for over 2 years for the University of British Columbia.

  • Instructor
    Derrick Arrington

    Derrick has taught biology and chemistry at both the high school and college level. He has a master's degree in science education.

  • Expert Contributor
    Gretchen Graef

    Gretchen has a Ph.D in Materials Science and Engineering. She has been an engineer, technical writer, and a teacher teaching physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics.

Learn about physical properties. Understand what a physical property is and what intensive vs. extensive properties are. Explore examples of physical properties. Updated: 04/30/2022

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Physical Property

In science, a property is often used to describe the different characteristics of a substance. These various qualities may refer to the state of matter, mass, density, oxidation, conductivity, colour, bonding, etc. It is important to recognize the unique properties each substance holds, as it helps to better understand how the substance behaves in different situations. It should be noted that there are two kinds of properties in science: chemical and physical.

Physical properties are traits of a substance which can be measured or observed without changing the identity of a substance. When a substance undergoes a physical change, it is usually reversible. For example the substance of water can be physically changed into ice by freezing the water molecules, or into water vapour, by boiling the water molecules. When water is frozen or heated up, the identity of water itself does not change, only the physical properties change.

Intensive vs. Extensive Properties

Physical properties can also be classified into intensive and extensive properties. Intensive properties are independent on the quantity of matter. Whereas extensive properties are dependent on the sample size, or the quantity of matter.

Listed below are some examples of both intensive and extensive properties:

Intensive Properties:

  • Boiling point
  • Density
  • State of matter
  • Colour
  • Melting point
  • Odour
  • Temperature
  • Refractive index
  • Luster
  • Hardness
  • Ductility
  • Malleability

Extensive Properties:

  • Volume
  • Mass
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Length

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Examples of Physical Properties

Some examples of physical properties include:

  • Colour
  • Hardness
  • Malleability
  • Weight
  • Electrical conductivity
  • Solubility
  • Mass
  • Density
  • Size
  • Melting point
  • Boiling point
  • Length
  • Volume

In comparison, there are also chemical properties, where the substance has potential to undergo a chemical change or chemical reaction through it's composition.

Is Density Intensive or Extensive?

In chemistry, density can be defined by the mass of a unit volume of a material substance. Density can be expressed by variable {eq}d {/eq} and can estimated using the following formula: {eq}d = M / V {/eq}. Where {eq}d {/eq} is density, where {eq}M {/eq} is mass, and where {eq}V {/eq} is volume. Density is generally expressed in units of grams per cubic centimetre, although density can also be expressed in units of kilograms per cubic metre. Density is classified as an intensive property. Even though both mass and volume are extensive properties, density is a ratio of these two properties, and the ratio does not change. Therefore density is categorized as an intensive property.

Referring back to the water example, the density of water may change according to it's state of matter and associated properties. For example:

  • Density of water (at 4 degrees Celsius) = 1.000 {eq}(g/cm^3) {/eq}, with the state being liquid
  • Density of water (at 20 degrees Celsius = 0.998 {eq}(g/cm^3) {/eq}, with the state being liquid
  • Density of ice = 0.920 {eq}(g/cm^3) {/eq}, with the state being solid
  • Density of water vapour = 0.76 {eq}(g/cm^3) {/eq}, with the state being vapour

Is Odour a Physical or Chemical Property?

Odour can be defined as a distinctive smell, sometimes an unpleasant one. Odour is classified as a physical property of matters as it is an observable trait which won't change the identity of a substance. In addition, odour is known to be an intensive property because it does not depend on the quantity of matter. Natural odours may be described as earthy, musty, sour, or even fishy, grassy or herbaceous. Whereas industrial odours often smell like iodine, petroleum, varnish, alcohol or even medicine. Some well-known examples of odours are as follows:

  • Fragrances (florals, perfumes)
  • Fruity (non-citrous)
  • Citrus (lemon, lime, orange)
  • Woody (pine, grass)
  • Chemicals (bleach)
  • Sweet (chocolate, caramel, vanilla)
  • Minty (peppermint, eucalyptus)
  • Nutty (peanut butter, almonds)
  • Pungent (blue cheese, cigar smoke)
  • Decayed (sour milk, rotting food)

Is Colour a Physical Property?

Colour is another example of a physical property, as it can be determined without changing the composition of a substance. More specifically, colour is another intensive property. Here are some examples of the colour of some naturally occurring matters:

  • Green (vegetation, grass, trees)
  • Blue (ocean, water, sky)
  • Pink (flowers)
  • Red (rose, blood)
  • Yellow (sun)
  • White (snow, sand)

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Physical Properties of a Useful Metal

Copper is a useful metal. It is used in jewelry and in architecture because of its reddish-brown color and other properties both physical and chemical. It is used in plumbing and in electrical wiring. Remember from the lesson that the units of density are often given in g/mL. You may also see density expressed in g/cc. The abbreviation cc stands for cubic centimeter and 1 mL = 1 cc.

Copper has a density of 8.92 g/mL, which is less dense than lead at 11.34 g/mL, but denser than aluminum at 2.7 g/mL. It melts at 1085 degree Celsius. The electrical conductivity of copper at 59,000,000 Siemens/m is the second highest after silver. Its thermal conductivity is also high at 401 Watt per meter per degree Celsius, which is much higher than the thermal conductivity of either iron or aluminum. This is why a lot of cookware is made of copper or has copper cladding on the bottom. Another property that makes copper useful is its ductility, which is its ability to be drawn into a wire.

The composition of the copper must be very pure, over 99.99% copper to allow an ingot of copper to be first drawing into copper rod and then reduced to thin wires or tubes that don't break when pushed through a die. The strength of copper is high in both compression and tension. Copper will corrode when used for plumbing, but much slower than iron.

Match the following properties with their application (there may be more than one answer for each use)

Properties

a. ductility

b. thermal conductivity

c. electrical conductivity

d. aesthetics -- color, luster

e. corrosion resistance

f. high melting point


Applications

1. Use in cookware at high temperature

2. Used to conduct electricity

3. Copper jewelry and light fixtures

4. Making wire and tubing

5. Bathroom plumbing


Answers

1. thermal conductivity, aesthetics, high melting point

2. electrical conductivity

3. aesthetics

4. ductility

5. ductility, thermal conductivity, and corrosion resistance

What is a physical property?

A physical property is a trait of a substance which can be measured or observed without changing the identity of a substance. When a substance undergoes a physical change, it is usually reversible.

What are examples of physical properties?

Some examples of physical properties include colour, hardness, malleability, weight, electrical conductivity, solubility, and mass. Other examples of physical properties are mass, density, size, melting point, boiling point, length, and volume.

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