Biology » Biology 204: Cell Metabolism » The Laws of Thermodynamics

First Law of Thermodynamics

This is a lesson from the tutorial, Biology 204: Cell Metabolism and we encourage you to log in or register before you continue, so that you can track your progress.

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By the end of this lesson and the next, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the concept of entropy
  • Explain the first and second laws of thermodynamics

What is thermodynamics?

Thermodynamics refers to the study of energy and energy transfer involving physical matter. The matter and its environment relevant to a particular case of energy transfer are what we refer to as a system. In addition, everything outside of that system is what we refer to as the surroundings.

For instance, when heating a pot of water on the stove, the system includes the stove, the pot, and the water. Energy is transferred within the system (between the stove, pot, and water). In general, there are two types of systems: open and closed. An open system is one in which energy can be transferred between the system and its surroundings. The stovetop system is open because heat can be lost into the air. Conversely, a closed system is one that cannot transfer energy to its surroundings.

Biological organisms are open systems. Energy is exchanged between them and their surroundings, as they consume energy-storing molecules and release energy to the environment by doing work. Like all things in the physical world, energy is subject to the laws of physics. The laws of thermodynamics govern the transfer of energy in and among all systems in the universe.

The First Law of Thermodynamics

The first law of thermodynamics deals with the total amount of energy in the universe. It states that this total amount of energy is constant. In other words, there has always been, and always will be, exactly the same amount of energy in the universe. Energy exists in many different forms.

According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy may be transferred from place to place or transformed into different forms, but it cannot be created or destroyed. As a matter of fact, the transfers and transformations of energy take place around us all the time. Light bulbs transform electrical energy into light energy. Gas stoves transform chemical energy from natural gas into heat energy. Similarly, plants perform one of the most biologically useful energy transformations on earth: that of converting the energy of sunlight into the chemical energy stored within organic molecules. You can see some examples of energy transformations in the image below.

First Law of Thermodynamics

You can see two examples of energy being transferred from one system to another and transformed from one form to another. Humans can convert the chemical energy in food, like this ice cream cone, into kinetic energy (the energy of movement to ride a bicycle). Similarly, plants can convert electromagnetic radiation (light energy) from the sun into chemical energy. Image credit:- “ice cream”: modification of work by D. Sharon Pruitt; “kids on bikes”: modification of work by Michelle Riggen-Ransom; “leaf”: modification of work by Cory Zanker / OpenStax Biology

Living Organisms Obey the First Law of Thermodynamics

The challenge for all living organisms is to obtain energy from their surroundings in forms that they can transfer or transform into usable energy to do work. However, living cells have evolved to meet this challenge very well. Chemical energy stored within organic molecules such as sugars and fats is transformed through a series of cellular chemical reactions into energy within molecules of ATP.

Energy in ATP molecules is easily accessible to do work. Examples of the types of work that cells need to do include building complex molecules, transporting materials, powering the beating motion of cilia or flagella, contracting muscle fibers to create movement, and reproduction.

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