So far we have learnt the laws (e.g., Boyle’s law, Charles’ law etc.) which are concise statements of experimental facts observed in the laboratory by the scientists.
Conducting careful experiments is an important aspect of scientific method and it tells us how the particular system is behaving under different conditions. However, once the experimental facts are established, a scientist is curious to know why the system is behaving in that way.
For example, gas laws help us to predict that pressure increases when we compress gases but we would like to know what happens at molecular level when a gas is compressed ? A theory is constructed to answer such questions.
A theory is a model (i.e., a mental picture) that enables us to better understand our observations. The theory that attempts to elucidate the behaviour of gases is known as kinetic molecular theory.
Assumptions or postulates of the kinetic-molecular theory of gases are given below. These postulates are related to atoms and molecules which cannot be seen, hence it is said to provide a microscopic model of gases.
- Gases consist of large number of identical particles (atoms or molecules) that are so small and so far apart on the average that the actual volume of the molecules is negligible in comparison to the empty space between them. They are considered as point masses. This assumption explains the great compressibility of gases.
- There is no force of attraction between the particles of a gas at ordinary temperature and pressure. The support for this assumption comes from the fact that gases expand and occupy all the space available to them.
- Particles of a gas are always in constant and random motion. If the particles were at rest and occupied fixed positions, then a gas would have had a fixed shape which is not observed.
- Particles of a gas move in all possible directions in straight lines. During their random motion, they collide with each other and with the walls of the container. Pressure is exerted by the gas as a result of collision of the particles with the walls of the container.
- Collisions of gas molecules are perfectly elastic. This means that total energy of molecules before and after the collision remains same. There may be exchange of energy between colliding molecules, their individual energies may change, but the sum of their energies remains constant. If there were loss of kinetic energy, the motion of molecules will stop and gases will settle down. This is contrary to what is actually observed.
- At any particular time, different particles in the gas have different speeds and hence different kinetic energies. This assumption is reasonable because as the particles collide, we expect their speed to change. Even if initial speed of all the particles was same, the molecular collisions will disrupt this uniformity. Consequently, the particles must have different speeds, which go on changing constantly. It is possible to show that though the individual speeds are changing, the distribution of speeds remains constant at a particular temperature.
- If a molecule has variable speed, then it must have a variable kinetic energy. Under these circumstances, we can talk only about average kinetic energy. In kinetic theory, it is assumed that average kinetic energy of the gas molecules is directly proportional to the absolute temperature. It is seen that on heating a gas at constant volume, the pressure increases. On heating the gas, kinetic energy of the particles increases and these strike the walls of the container more frequently, thus, exerting more pressure.
Kinetic theory of gases allows us to derive theoretically, all the gas laws studied in the previous sections. Calculations and predictions based on kinetic theory of gases agree very well with the experimental observations and thus establish the correctness of this model