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10.1: Characteristics of Gases

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    Learning Objectives
    • To describe the characteristics of a gas.

    The three common phases (or states) of matter are gases, liquids, and solids. Gases have the lowest density of the three, are highly compressible, and completely fill any container in which they are placed. Gases behave this way because their intermolecular forces are relatively weak, so their molecules are constantly moving independently of the other molecules present. Solids, in contrast, are relatively dense, rigid, and incompressible because their intermolecular forces are so strong that the molecules are essentially locked in place. Liquids are relatively dense and incompressible, like solids, but they flow readily to adapt to the shape of their containers, like gases. We can therefore conclude that the sum of the intermolecular forces in liquids are between those of gases and solids. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) compares the three states of matter and illustrates the differences at the molecular level.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A Diatomic Substance (O2) in the Solid, Liquid, and Gaseous States: (a) Solid O2 has a fixed volume and shape, and the molecules are packed tightly together. (b) Liquid O2 conforms to the shape of its container but has a fixed volume; it contains relatively densely packed molecules. (c) Gaseous O2 fills its container completely—regardless of the container’s size or shape—and consists of widely separated molecules.

    The state of a given substance depends strongly on conditions. For example, H2O is commonly found in all three states: solid ice, liquid water, and water vapor (its gaseous form). Under most conditions, we encounter water as the liquid that is essential for life; we drink it, cook with it, and bathe in it. When the temperature is cold enough to transform the liquid to ice, we can ski or skate on it, pack it into a snowball or snow cone, and even build dwellings with it. Water vapor (the term vapor refers to the gaseous form of a substance that is a liquid or a solid under normal conditions so nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) are referred to as gases, but gaseous water in the atmosphere is called water vapor) is a component of the air we breathe, and it is produced whenever we heat water for cooking food or making coffee or tea. Water vapor at temperatures greater than 100°C is called steam. Steam is used to drive large machinery, including turbines that generate electricity. The properties of the three states of water are summarized in Table 10.1.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Properties of Water at 1.0 atm
    Temperature State Density (g/cm3)
    ≤0°C solid (ice) 0.9167 (at 0.0°C)
    0°C–100°C liquid (water) 0.9997 (at 4.0°C)
    ≥100°C vapor (steam) 0.005476 (at 127°C)

    The geometric structure and the physical and chemical properties of atoms, ions, and molecules usually do not depend on their physical state; the individual water molecules in ice, liquid water, and steam, for example, are all identical. In contrast, the macroscopic properties of a substance depend strongly on its physical state, which is determined by intermolecular forces and conditions such as temperature and pressure.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) shows the locations in the periodic table of those elements that are commonly found in the gaseous, liquid, and solid states. Except for hydrogen, the elements that occur naturally as gases are on the right side of the periodic table. Of these, all the noble gases (group 18) are monatomic gases, whereas the other gaseous elements are diatomic molecules (H2, N2, O2, F2, and Cl2). Oxygen can also form a second allotrope, the highly reactive triatomic molecule ozone (O3), which is also a gas. In contrast, bromine (as Br2) and mercury (Hg) are liquids under normal conditions (25°C and 1.0 atm, commonly referred to as “room temperature and pressure”). Gallium (Ga), which melts at only 29.76°C, can be converted to a liquid simply by holding a container of it in your hand or keeping it in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer day. The rest of the elements are all solids under normal conditions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Elements That Occur Naturally as Gases, Liquids, and Solids at 25°C and 1 atm. The noble gases and mercury occur as monatomic species, whereas all other gases and bromine are diatomic molecules.
    Purple elements are gaseous elements, green are liquid, and gray and solid. H, N, O, F, Cl, He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe, and Rn are all purple. Br and Hg are green. The rest are gray.

    All of the gaseous elements (other than the monatomic noble gases) are molecules. Within the same group (1, 15, 16 and 17), the lightest elements are gases. All gaseous substances are characterized by weak interactions between the constituent molecules or atoms.


    Bulk matter can exist in three states: gas, liquid, and solid. Gases have the lowest density of the three, are highly compressible, and fill their containers completely. Elements that exist as gases at room temperature and pressure are clustered on the right side of the periodic table; they occur as either monatomic gases (the noble gases) or diatomic molecules (some halogens, N2, O2).

    10.1: Characteristics of Gases is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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