The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics led us to the concept of temperature that agrees with our commonsense notion. Temperature is a marker of the ‘hotness’ of a body.
It determines the direction of flow of heat when two bodies are placed in thermal contact. Heat flows from the body at a higher temperature to the one at lower temperature.
The flow stops when the temperatures equalise; the two bodies are then in thermal equilibrium. We saw in some detail how to construct temperature scales to assign temperatures to different bodies. We now describe the concepts of heat and other relevant quantities like internal energy and work.
The concept of internal energy of a system is not difficult to understand. We know that every bulk system consists of a large number of molecules. Internal energy is simply the sum of the kinetic energies and potential energies of these molecules.
We remarked earlier that in thermodynamics, the kinetic energy of the system, as a whole, is not relevant. Internal energy is thus, the sum of molecular kinetic and potential energies in the frame of reference relative to which the centre of mass of the system is at rest.
Thus, it includes only the (disordered) energy associated with the random motion of molecules of the system. We denote the internal energy of a system by U.
Though we have invoked the molecular picture to understand the meaning of internal energy, as far as thermodynamics is concerned, U is simply a macroscopic variable of the system.
The important thing about internal energy is that it depends only on the state of the system, not on how that state was achieved. Internal energy U of a system is an example of a thermodynamic ‘state variable’ – its value depends only on the given state of the system, not on history i.e. not on the ‘path’ taken to arrive at that state.
Thus, the internal energy of a given mass of gas depends on its state described by specific values of pressure, volume and temperature. It does not depend on how this state of the gas came about. Pressure, volume, temperature, and internal energy are thermodynamic state variables of the system (gas).
If we neglect the small intermolecular forces in a gas, the internal energy of a gas is just the sum of kinetic energies associated with various random motions of its molecules. We will see in the next chapter that in a gas this motion is not only translational (i.e. motion from one point to another in the volume of the container); it also includes rotational and vibrational motion of the molecules (Fig. 12.3).
Let's discuss the ways of changing internal energy of a system,Consider again, for simplicity, the system to be a certain mass of gas contained in a cylinder with a movable piston as shown in Fig. 12.4.
Experience shows there are two ways of changing the state of the gas (and hence its internal energy). One way is to put the cylinder in contact with a body at a higher temperature than that of the gas. The temperature difference will cause a flow of energy (heat) from the hotter body to the gas, thus increasing the internal energy of the gas.
The other way is to push the piston down i.e. to do work on the system, which again results in increasing the internal energy of the gas. Of course, both these things could happen in the reverse direction. With surroundings at a lower temperature, heat would flow from the gas to the surroundings.
Likewise, the gas could push the piston up and do work on the surroundings. In short, heat and work are two different modes of altering the state of a thermodynamic system and changing its internal energy.
The notion of heat should be carefully distinguished from the notion of internal energy. Heat is certainly energy, but it is the energy in transit. This is not just a play of words. The distinction is of basic significance.
The state of a thermodynamic system is characterised by its internal energy, not heat. A statement like ‘a gas in a given state has a certain amount of heat’ is as meaningless as the statement that ‘a gas in a given state has a certain amount of work’. In contrast, ‘a gas in a given state has a certain amount of internal energy’ is a perfectly meaningful statement.
Similarly, the statements ‘a certain amount of heat is supplied to the system’ or ‘a certain amount of work was done by the system’ are perfectly meaningful.
To summarise, heat and work in thermodynamics are not state variables. They are modes of energy transfer to a system resulting in change in its internal energy, which, as already mentioned, is a state variable.
In ordinary language, we often confuse heat with internal energy. The distinction between them is sometimes ignored in elementary physics books. For proper understanding of thermodynamics, however, the distinction is crucial.