5 Ways to Make Thermodynamics a More Approachable Topic for Students

Usama Attiq

Introduction: Basic Chemistry Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics comes from two Greek words thermo and dynamic. Thermo means “heat” and dynamic means “power”. In chemistry, thermodynamics is the study of the relationship between heat and work in chemical reactions. Basic chemistry thermodynamics helps to know whether a particular reaction written on the page is energetically possible or not. But this topic does not tell us about the pathway of the reaction or reaction rate.

Chemical thermodynamics helps to provide information about the macroscopic properties of chemical substances and the properties of certain molecules. In thermodynamics, there are several basic concepts that need to be learned. Enthalpy is referred to as the heat of a thermodynamic system. It is equal to the total amount of heat in the system which is equivalent to the internal energy and the product of pressure and volume.

                                                                        H = U + PV

The system is a term frequently used in basic chemistry thermodynamics. A system is a sequence of components that are connected to each other. In other words, it is the main thing to be focused on. There are three types of systems used in chemical thermodynamics; isolated system, open system, and closed system.

  1. Isolated system: This type of system has rigid walls that do not allow any substance or heat to enter or leave the system.

  2. Open system: Open system allows both matter as well as heat to transfer through the system. 

  3. Closed system: It allows energy to enter or leave the system but does not allow the matter to transfer through the system.

Basic chemistry thermodynamics contains several aspects that are difficult for some students to understand. At Labster, we compiled all the difficulties that students experience during studying basic chemistry thermodynamics. Then, we explain five ways that may make this topic simpler and easier to learn. At the end of the topic, we will convince you why a virtual lab simulation is important for teachers to convey basic chemistry thermodynamics to their students in class.

Why basic chemistry thermodynamics can be tricky to learn

Basic chemistry thermodynamics is a huge topic, some students do not like learning basic chemistry thermodynamics due to the complexities and complications of the topic. There are three main reasons that make this topic tough to understand.  

1. It feels abstract

There are several concepts used in basic chemistry thermodynamics that students may find abstract. For example, systems, surroundings, chemical reactions, energy, work, and molecules. These all are abstract concepts because students cannot see them with the naked eye. It is hard for students to believe in such abstract concepts and imagine the structures in the mind.

2. It’s content-heavy

In thermodynamics, students need to learn about different laws of chemical thermodynamics and use experimental information, charts, and tables. Every law has its own properties and applications. Therefore, the content of basic chemistry thermodynamics is very heavy and students may find it boring to learn this topic.  

3. Need to remember too many terms

Many students get confused while learning several terms of basic chemistry thermodynamics. For instance, internal energy and internal energy seem like they are two similar terms which is wrong. In reality, these two are different terms and have different definitions. So, it is difficult for some students to differentiate between the different terms of basic chemistry thermodynamics properly.

5 ways to make basic chemistry thermodynamics a more approachable topic to understand

Since we know the difficulties that students experience during learning about basic chemistry thermodynamics, here are five methods that make this topic easier to understand.

1. Talk about the people behind the basic chemistry thermodynamics

Sadi Carnot, a French Mechanical engineer, was known as the “Father of thermodynamics.” He published a book that explained the theory related to the maximum productivity of heat engines in 1824. With the help of this work, he introduced the world to thermodynamics. Later, two scientists Rudolf Clausius and Lord Kelvin used the work of Carnot and developed the second law of thermodynamics. They also explained the concept of entropy. It is the work of Sadi Carnot that advanced science technologies such as automobiles and jet engines are designed. In these technologies, Sadi Carnot’s theory of thermodynamics is applied.

2. Learn the laws of thermodynamics

Students need to understand the laws of thermodynamics that can help them to understand the topic. These are the following:

  1. The first law of thermodynamics

  2. The second law of thermodynamics

The first law of thermodynamics

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can transfer from one form to another form, but it can never be created or destroyed. In basic chemistry thermodynamics, If the molecules of the reaction experience a change in the internal energy, the surrounding will experience a change in energy but the opposite in type. For example, in a heat engine, the thermal energy is converted into mechanical energy and considered the open system. It shows that energy is converted from one kind to another kind.

Two important terms are used in the first law of thermodynamics; exothermic reaction and endothermic reaction.

  • Exothermic reaction: Exothermic reaction is a reaction in which heat releases from the system to the surrounding. For example, the burning of candles and the formation of ice cubes.  

  • Endothermic reaction: Endothermic reaction is a type of chemical reaction in which reactants absorb the energy from the surroundings and produce products. For example, cracking of the alkanes and melting ice. 

Figure: An image representing the first law of thermodynamics is taken from Labster theory. 

The second law of thermodynamics:

According to the second law of thermodynamics, every spontaneous reaction can cause an increase in the amount of entropy in the world. The second law of thermodynamics explains that the entropy of the world can never be negative.  A spontaneous reaction does not require energy from an external source to complete the reaction. Entropy is the measuring of the quality of the energy of molecules and atoms present in a chemical reaction. The unit of entropy is joules per kelvin (J/K). The second law of thermodynamics is also called the law of increased entropy.

This law explains that it is not possible to completely convert heat energy into mechanical energy. For instance, when an engine is heated, the pressure increases which moves the piston upward to release the gas from the engine. But there is always some gas present in the engine. Moreover, the heat produced through friction is unusable and can also be removed from the thermodynamic system. 

3. Relate to the real world

It is important to relate difficult topics like basic chemistry thermodynamics with the real world. When students learn about the applications of thermodynamics used in the world, it enhances their interest in the topic and they better understand it. Thermodynamics has several applications used in many manufacturing industries. It includes:

  • Many vehicles including bikes, cars, airplanes, and ships are operated by applying the second law of thermodynamics. The reason is that heat is transferred from a body of higher temperature to a body of lower temperature.

  • The thermodynamic principle is used for the operation of gas compressors, fans, and blowers.

  • The heat pumps and refrigerators are worked on Reverse Carnot Cycle. In the Reverse Carnot Cycle, the work is used to transfer heat from the lower-temperature medium to the higher-temperature medium.

  • Air conditioners also follow the principle of thermodynamics. The air conditioners absorb the heat from the room and lower the temperature of the room.

  • Other applications of thermodynamics are nuclear power plants, thermal power plants, and power plants that consist of renewable resources of energy like water waves, tides, winds, and solar systems.

thermodynamics solar power plant

Figure: An image of solar power plant from Labster’s virtual laboratory of Basic Chemistry Thermodynamics

4. Seeing is believing

Using color images to explain topics like basic chemistry thermodynamics helps students to learn them appropriately. When they see color images, it enhances their interest in understanding basic chemistry thermodynamics. Students recognize the system, chemical reaction process, heat involvement, and enthalpy through these diagrams. It makes tough topics easier and simpler to understand.

The image below represents the graph related to the enthalpy of the reaction. It helps students to learn about enthalpy, the second law of thermodynamics, and how to make a graph of the enthalpy of a reaction. 

Basic Chemistry Thermodynamics lab scene

Figure: An image of enthalpy of reaction from Labster virtual laboratory on Basic Chemistry Thermodynamics. 

5. Use of virtual lab simulation

Learning through virtual labs is an advanced way to get knowledge about difficult topics like basic chemistry thermodynamics. At Labster, we can provide you with 3D laboratory simulation with gamification elements like storytelling and a scoring system.

Labster Basic Chemistry Thermodynamics simulation explains the concepts of entropy, enthalpy, free Gibbs energy, laws of thermodynamics, the difference between the enthalpy of formation and enthalpy of combustion, Hess’s law, and exothermic and endothermic reactions.

Check out the Labster simulation about Basic Chemistry Thermodynamics, or get in touch to find out how you can start a virtual lab simulation to explain basic chemistry thermodynamics with your students.

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