Chemistry » Gases » Relating Pressure, Volume, Amount, and Temperature: The Ideal Gas Law

Breathing and Boyle’s Law

What do you do about 20 times per minute for your whole life, without break, and often without even being aware of it? The answer, of course, is respiration, or breathing. How does it work? It turns out that the gas laws apply here. Your lungs take in gas that your body needs (oxygen) and get rid of waste gas (carbon dioxide).

Lungs are made of spongy, stretchy tissue that expands and contracts while you breathe. When you inhale, your diaphragm and intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs) contract, expanding your chest cavity and making your lung volume larger. The increase in volume leads to a decrease in pressure (Boyle’s law). This causes air to flow into the lungs (from high pressure to low pressure).

When you exhale, the process reverses: Your diaphragm and rib muscles relax, your chest cavity contracts, and your lung volume decreases, causing the pressure to increase (Boyle’s law again), and air flows out of the lungs (from high pressure to low pressure). You then breathe in and out again, and again, repeating this Boyle’s law cycle for the rest of your life (see the figure below).

This figure contains two diagrams of a cross section of the human head and torso. The first diagram on the left is labeled “Inspiration.” It shows curved arrows in gray proceeding through the nasal passages and mouth to the lungs. An arrow points downward from the diaphragm, which is relatively flat, just beneath the lungs. This arrow is labeled “Diaphragm contracts.” At the entrance to the mouth and nasal passages, a label of P subscript lungs equals 1 dash 3 torr lower” is provided. The second, similar diagram, which is labeled “Expiration,” reverses the direction of both arrows. Arrows extend from the lungs out through the nasal passages and mouth. Similarly, an arrow points up to the diaphragm, showing a curved diaphragm and lungs reduced in size from the previous image. This arrow is labeled “Diaphragm relaxes.” At the entrance to the mouth and nasal passages, a label of P subscript lungs equals 1 dash 3 torr higher” is provided.Breathing occurs because expanding and contracting lung volume creates small pressure differences between your lungs and your surroundings, causing air to be drawn into and forced out of your lungs.

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