Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

Kinetic Energy and Temperature

  • Page ID
  • Another way of thinking about temperature is that it is related to the energy of the particles in the sample: the faster the particles are moving, the higher the temperature. It may well take different amounts of energy to get particles moving at the same average kinetic energy. For a simple monoatomic gas, like helium or neon, the only motion that the atoms can do is to move from one place to another in a straight line until they bump into something else, such as another atom or molecule.86 This kind of motion is called translational motion and is directly linked to the kinetic energy of the atom or molecule through the relationship KE = 1/2 m v(bar)2 = 3/2 kT where v(bar) is the average velocity of all of the molecules in the population87, m is the mass, k is a constant, known as the Boltzmann constant, and T is the temperature. That is, the average kinetic energy of a gas is directly related to the temperature. In any given gaseous sample of moving atoms there are many collisions per unit time but these collisions do not alter the total energy of the system (it is conserved).88 What these collision can, and often do, alter is the relative kinetic energies of the two (or more) colliding atoms: if one slows down, the other will speed up (remember, we are now talking only about monoatomic species; things get more complicated with more complex molecules).  

    Any single atom or molecule has kinetic energy, but not a temperature. This is an important distinction. Populations of molecules have a temperature related to their average velocity but the concept of temperature is not relevant to individual molecules, they have kinetic energy but not a temperature. This is a important idea, temperature as a characteristic of a system not its individual components. While a system has a unique temperature, the individual molecules that make up the system can have quite different kinetic energies. Because of collisions between molecules, an individual molecule’s kinetic energy can be changing rapidly, even though the temperature of the system is constant. When it comes to chemical reactions, it is individual kinetic energies that will be critical (we consider this point in greater detail in Chapter 7).


    86 We can ignore gravitational effects because at the molecular level they are many orders of magnitude weaker than the forces between atoms and molecules.

    87 Actually v(bar) is the root mean squared velocity of the gas particles,a measure that is similar to the mean, but makes the direction of the particles irrelevant.

    88 We can also, for all practical purposes, ignore the fact that \(E = mc^2\); the conversions between energy and matter are insignificant for chemical processes.