Chemistry » Liquids and Solids » Phase Transitions

Vaporization and Condensation

Phase Transitions

We witness and utilize changes of physical state, or phase transitions, in a great number of ways. As one example of global significance, consider the evaporation, condensation, freezing, and melting of water. These changes of state are essential aspects of our earth’s water cycle as well as many other natural phenomena and technological processes of central importance to our lives. In this topic, the essential aspects of phase transitions are explored.

Vaporization and Condensation

When a liquid vaporizes in a closed container, gas molecules cannot escape. As these gas phase molecules move randomly about, they will occasionally collide with the surface of the condensed phase, and in some cases, these collisions will result in the molecules re-entering the condensed phase. The change from the gas phase to the liquid is called condensation.

When the rate of condensation becomes equal to the rate of vaporization, neither the amount of the liquid nor the amount of the vapor in the container changes. The vapor in the container is then said to be in equilibrium with the liquid. Keep in mind that this is not a static situation, as molecules are continually exchanged between the condensed and gaseous phases. Such is an example of a dynamic equilibrium, the status of a system in which reciprocal processes (for example, vaporization and condensation) occur at equal rates.

The pressure exerted by the vapor in equilibrium with a liquid in a closed container at a given temperature is called the liquid’s vapor pressure (or equilibrium vapor pressure). The area of the surface of the liquid in contact with a vapor and the size of the vessel have no effect on the vapor pressure, although they do affect the time required for the equilibrium to be reached.

We can measure the vapor pressure of a liquid by placing a sample in a closed container, like that illustrated in the figure below, and using a manometer to measure the increase in pressure that is due to the vapor in equilibrium with the condensed phase.

Three images are shown and labeled “a,” “b,” and “c.” Each image shows a round bulb connected on the right to a tube that is horizontal, then is bent vertically, curves, and then is vertical again to make a u-shape. A valve is located in the horizontal portion of the tube. Image a depicts a liquid in the bulb, labeled, “Liquid,” and upward-facing arrows leading away from the surface of the liquid. The phrase, “Molecules escape surface and form vapor” is written below the bulb, and a gray liquid in the u-shaped portion of the tube is shown at equal heights on the right and left sides. Image b depicts a liquid in the bulb, labeled, “Liquid,” and upward-facing arrows leading away from the surface of the liquid to molecules drawn in the upper portion of the bulb. A gray liquid in the u-shaped portion of the tube is shown slightly higher on the right side than on the left side. Image c depicts a liquid in the bulb, labeled, “Liquid,” and upward-facing arrows leading away from the surface of the liquid to molecules drawn in the upper portion of the bulb. There are more molecules present in c than in b. The phrase “Equilibrium reached, vapor pressure determined,” is written below the bulb and a gray liquid in the u-shaped portion of the tube is shown higher on the right side. A horizontal line is drawn level with each of these liquid levels and the distance between the lines is labeled with a double-headed arrow. This section is labeled with the phrase, “Vapor pressure.”

In a closed container, dynamic equilibrium is reached when (a) the rate of molecules escaping from the liquid to become the gas (b) increases and eventually (c) equals the rate of gas molecules entering the liquid. When this equilibrium is reached, the vapor pressure of the gas is constant, although the vaporization and condensation processes continue.

The chemical identities of the molecules in a liquid determine the types (and strengths) of intermolecular attractions possible; consequently, different substances will exhibit different equilibrium vapor pressures. Relatively strong intermolecular attractive forces will serve to impede vaporization as well as favoring “recapture” of gas-phase molecules when they collide with the liquid surface, resulting in a relatively low vapor pressure. Weak intermolecular attractions present less of a barrier to vaporization, and a reduced likelihood of gas recapture, yielding relatively high vapor pressures. The following example illustrates this dependence of vapor pressure on intermolecular attractive forces.


Explaining Vapor Pressure in Terms of IMFs

Given the shown structural formulas for these four compounds, explain their relative vapor pressures in terms of types and extents of IMFs:

Four Lewis structures are shown. The first structure, labeled “ethanol,” shows a carbon bonded to three hydrogen atoms that is single bonded to a second carbon that is bonded to two hydrogen atoms and a hydroxyl group. The second structure, labeled “ethylene glycol, shows two carbon atoms, single bonded to one another, single bonded each to two hydrogen atoms, and each single bonded to a hydroxyl group. The third image, labeled “diethyl ether,” shows an oxygen atom single bonded on both sides to a carbon that is bonded to two hydrogens, and a second carbon, that is itself bonded to three hydrogen atoms. The fourth image, labeled “water,” shows an oxygen atom that is single bonded on both sides to hydrogen atoms.


Diethyl ether has a very small dipole and most of its intermolecular attractions are London forces. Although this molecule is the largest of the four under consideration, its IMFs are the weakest and, as a result, its molecules most readily escape from the liquid. It also has the highest vapor pressure. Due to its smaller size, ethanol exhibits weaker dispersion forces than diethyl ether.

However, ethanol is capable of hydrogen bonding and, therefore, exhibits stronger overall IMFs, which means that fewer molecules escape from the liquid at any given temperature, and so ethanol has a lower vapor pressure than diethyl ether.

Water is much smaller than either of the previous substances and exhibits weaker dispersion forces, but its extensive hydrogen bonding provides stronger intermolecular attractions, fewer molecules escaping the liquid, and a lower vapor pressure than for either diethyl ether or ethanol.

Ethylene glycol has two −OH groups, so, like water, it exhibits extensive hydrogen bonding. It is much larger than water and thus experiences larger London forces. Its overall IMFs are the largest of these four substances, which means its vaporization rate will be the slowest and, consequently, its vapor pressure the lowest.

As temperature increases, the vapor pressure of a liquid also increases due to the increased average KE of its molecules. Recall that at any given temperature, the molecules of a substance experience a range of kinetic energies, with a certain fraction of molecules having a sufficient energy to overcome IMF and escape the liquid (vaporize).

At a higher temperature, a greater fraction of molecules have enough energy to escape from the liquid, as shown in the figure below. The escape of more molecules per unit of time and the greater average speed of the molecules that escape both contribute to the higher vapor pressure.

A graph is shown where the y-axis is labeled “Number of molecules” and the x-axis is labeled “Kinetic Energy.” Two lines are graphed and a vertical dotted line, labeled “Minimum K E needed to escape,” is drawn halfway across the x-axis. The first line move sharply upward and has a high peak near the left side of the x-axis. It drops just as steeply and ends about 60 percent of the way across the x-axis. This line is labeled “Low T.” A second line, labeled “High T,” begins at the same point as the first, but does not go to such a high point, is wider, and ends slightly further to the right on the x-axis.

Temperature affects the distribution of kinetic energies for the molecules in a liquid. At the higher temperature, more molecules have the necessary kinetic energy, KE, to escape from the liquid into the gas phase.

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