Saturday, 25 June 2011

A Question of Scale (3) - Latent Heat

Latent (hidden) heat plays an important role in climate and weather, but its importance is often overlooked or misunderstood. Heat is simply the energy of vibration of atoms or molecules in solids, liquids and gases. Heat is motion; motion is heat. More motion equals more heat - hotter. Less motion equals less heat - colder.

In a solid such as ice, water molecules are fixed relative to one another. They can move a small amount relative to their neighbours, but can't move freely through the solid; it's as if they were inter-connected by springs or stiff elastic. These notional "springs" are the strong attractive force which operates at the relatively short distance between the molecules.

In a liquid, molecules vibrate much more, and are free to move about, like table-tennis balls in a bucket. Shake the bucket, and the balls move about. Shake it more; balls from the bottom can move to the top, and vice-versa. They collide with one another, thus transferring energy of motion (kinetic energy). More vigorous shaking may result in a ball leaping above the others - it may even leap out of the bucket. This is a simple illustration of evaporation - balls moving through the air have effectively become a gas.

In a gas, the molecules have much greater energy of motion, and are free to move in all directions like the balls that escaped from the bucket. They collide one with another, transferring and sharing their kinetic energy. As a consequence they are much farther apart than molecules in a liquid or solid.

To transform a solid into a liquid, enough heat has to be added for the kinetic energy of the atoms or molecules to overcome the strong attraction between them. The amount of heat per unit of mass of the solid is termed the latent heat of fusion for that solid. It is many times greater than the specific heat, which is the amount of heat per unit of mass to raise its temperature by one degree Celsius (or Kelvin). Why is this important? It takes far more heat to melt ice than it does to warm ice to its melting point.

The specific heat of ice is 2.108 kJ/kgK (thousand joules per kilogram per degree Kelvin); the latent heat of fusion of ice is 334 kJ/kg. It takes 158 times as much heat to melt a given mass of ice as to raise its temperature by one degree. It appears to me that it's a common misconception that once ice is raised to its melting point it will melt rapidly. It would take 158 times longer to melt ice than to raise its temperature the last degree to the melting point, given the same rate of heat input.

We use this property of ice almost daily. A couple of ice cubes in a glass of juice or spirit lowers the temperature rapidly, but that cooling reduces the heat available for the ice to melt, which must then come from the surroundings - the sun, the air or a warm hand. A large ice-floe or iceberg can drift for months before disappearing completely. Some of the much larger ones can endure for years. The ice that does melt removes a lot of heat from the surrounding air and water, reducing the temperature difference and slowing the transfer of heat and therefore the melting rate.

Enough about ice - I can see the bottom of my glass. Conversion of a liquid into a gas, as in water to water vapour (or steam) requires an even greater input of heat energy as does melting. The figure of 334 kJ/kg for ice to water compares with 2,270 kJ/kg for water to vapour - nearly 7 times as much. This is important because it's the mechanism by which vast quantities of heat energy are transported aloft from the surface of the Earth into the atmosphere. It's a major factor in climate - some would argue (including myself) that it's the major factor.

Evaporation of water cools land and more importantly ocean surfaces, the resulting upward convection drives surface winds, and the water vapour condenses to forms clouds which block sunlight from reaching the surface. The condensation into clouds releases the latent heat into the upper atmosphere, where it's better placed to finally radiate into space and balance the incoming dynamo of the climate; energy from the sun. Water and its latent heat therefore has a major impact in cooling the Earth's surface, a direct result of its unusual properties compared with other common substances.

See this page for the properties of dihydrogen monoxide (or hydroxyl acid - it's nasty stuff, thousands of people die because of it, or a lack of it, or in it, every year).

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