6.1.4 The Internal Energy as a State Function

When we talk about our chemical system losing or gaining energy, we need to introduce a quantity which represents the total energy of the system.

It may be chemical, electrical, mechanical or any other type of energy you may think of, the sum of all these is the energy of the system. In thermodynamics, we call it the internal energy, U of the system, which may change, when

  1. heat passes into or out of the system
  2. work is done on or by the system
  3. matter enters or leaves the system

(a) Work

Let us first examine a change in internal energy by doing work. We take a system containing some quantity of water in a thermos flask or in an insulated beaker.

This would not allow exchange of heat between the system and surroundings through its boundary and we call this type of system as adiabatic. The manner in which the state of such a system may be changed will be called adiabatic process.

Adiabatic process is a process in which there is no transfer of heat between the system and surroundings. Here, the wall separating the system and the surroundings is called the adiabatic wall.

Let us bring the change in the internal energy of the system by doing some work on Let us call the initial state of the system as state A and its temperature as TA.

Let the internal energy of the system in state A be called UA. We can change the state of the system in two different ways.

One way: We do some mechanical work, say 1 kJ, by rotating a set of small paddles and thereby churning water. Let the new state be called B state and its temperature, as TB.

It is found that TB > TA and the change in temperature, T = TBTA. Let the internal energy of the system in state B be UB and the change in internal energy, U =UBUA.


Second way: We now do an equal amount (i.e., 1kJ) electrical work with the help of an immersion rod and note down the temperature change. We find that the change in temperature is same as in the earlier case, say, TBTA.

In fact, the experiments in the above manner were done by J. P. Joule between 1840–50 and he was able to show that a given amount of work done on the system, no matter how it was done (irrespective of path) produced the same change of state, as measured by the change in the temperature of the system.

So, it seems appropriate to define a quantity, the internal energy U, whose value is characteristic of the state of a system, whereby the adiabatic work, wad required to bring about a change of state is equal to the difference between the value of U in one state and that in another state, U i.e.,

  • U = U 2U 1 = w ad


Therefore, internal energy, U, of the system is a state function.

By conventions of IUPAC in chemical thermodynamics. The positive sign expresses that wad is positive when work is done on the system and the internal energy of system increases.

Similarly, if the work is done by the system,wad will be negative because internal energy of the system decreases.

Some of other familiar state functions are V, p, and T.

If we bring a change in temperature of the system from 25°C to 35°C, the change in temperature is 35°C–25°C = +10°C, whether we go straight up to 35°C or we cool the system for a few degrees, then take the system to the final temperature.

Thus, T is a state function and the change in temperature is independent of  the route taken.

Volume of water in a pond, for example, is a state function, because change in volume of its water is independent of the route by which water is filled in the pond, either by rain or by tubewell or by both.


(b)  Heat

We can also change the internal energy of a system by transfer of heat from the surroundings to the system or vice-versa without expenditure of work.

This exchange of energy, which is a result of temperature difference is called heat, q. Let us consider bringing about the same change in temperature.

We take water at temperature, TA in a container having thermally conducting walls, say made up of copper and enclose it in a huge heat reservoir at temperature, TB.

The heat absorbed by the system (water), q can be measured in terms of temperature difference , TB TA. In this case change in internal energy, U= q, when no work is done at constant volume.


(c)  The general case

Let us consider the general case in which a change of state is brought about both by doing work and by transfer of heat. We write change in internal energy for this case as:

U =+ w

For a given change in state, q and w can vary depending on how the change is carried out. However, q +w = U will depend only on initial and final state.

It will be independent of the way the change is carried out. If there is no transfer of energy as heat or as work (isolated system) i.e., if w = 0 and q = 0, then U=0

The equation U = q + w is mathematical statement of the first law of thermodynamics, which states that

The energy of an isolated system is constant.

It is commonly stated as the law of conservation of energy i.e., energy can neither be created nor be destroyed.

Related posts

Leave a Comment