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2.6: Quantum States, Microstates, and Energy Spreading

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    Learning Objectives
    • Explain how entropy is a measure of the degree of the spreading and sharing of thermal energy within a system.
    • Explain why the entropy of a substance increases with its molecular weight and complexity and with temperature.
    • Explain why entropy increases as the pressure or concentration becomes smaller.
    • Explain why entropies of gases are much larger than those of condensed phases.

    Entropy is a measure of the degree of spreading and sharing of thermal energy within a system. This “spreading and sharing” can be spreading of the thermal energy into a larger volume of space or its sharing amongst previously inaccessible microstates of the system. Entropy is an extensive quantity; that is, it is proportional to the quantity of matter in a system; thus 100 g of metallic copper has twice the entropy of 50 g at the same temperature. This makes sense because the larger piece of copper contains twice as many quantized energy levels able to contain the thermal energy.

    Thermal energy is the portion of a molecule's energy that is proportional to its temperature, and thus relates to motion at the molecular scale. What kinds of molecular motions are possible? For monatomic molecules, there is only one: actual movement from one location to another, which we call translation. Since there are three directions in space, all molecules possess three modes of translational motion.

    For polyatomic molecules, two additional kinds of motions are possible. One of these is rotation; a linear molecule such as CO2 in which the atoms are all laid out along the x-axis can rotate along the y- and z-axes, while molecules having less symmetry can rotate about all three axes. Thus linear molecules possess two modes of rotational motion, while non-linear ones have three rotational modes. Finally, molecules consisting of two or more atoms can undergo internal vibrations. For freely moving molecules in a gas, the number of vibrational modes or patterns depends on both the number of atoms and the shape of the molecule, and it increases rapidly as the molecule becomes more complicated.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Relative Energy levels for translation (left), rotation (middle) and vibration (right). (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    The relative populations of the quantized translational, rotational, and vibrational energy states of a typical diatomic molecule are depicted by the thickness of the lines in this schematic (not-to-scale!) diagram. The colored shading indicates the total thermal energy available at a given temperature. The numbers at the top show order-of-magnitude spacings between adjacent levels. It is readily apparent that virtually all the thermal energy resides in translational states.

    Notice the greatly different spacing of the three kinds of energy levels in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). This is extremely important because it determines the number of energy quanta that a molecule can accept, and, as Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) demonstrates, the number of different ways this energy can be distributed amongst the molecules.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The more closely spaced the quantized energy states of a molecule, the greater will be the number of ways in which a given quantity of thermal energy can be shared amongst a collection of these molecules. (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    The spacing of molecular energy states becomes closer as the mass and number of bonds in the molecule increases, so we can generally say that the more complex the molecule, the greater the density of its energy states.

    At the atomic and molecular level, all energy is quantized; each particle possesses discrete states of kinetic energy and is able to accept thermal energy only in packets whose values correspond to the energies of one or more of these states. Polyatomic molecules can store energy in rotational and vibrational motions, and all molecules (even monatomic ones) will possess translational kinetic energy (thermal energy) at all temperatures above absolute zero. The energy difference between adjacent translational states is so minute that translational kinetic energy can be regarded as continuous (non-quantized) for most practical purposes.

    The number of ways in which thermal energy can be distributed amongst the allowed states within a collection of molecules is easily calculated from simple statistics, but we will confine ourselves to an example here. Suppose that we have a system consisting of three molecules and three quanta of energy to share among them. We can give all the kinetic energy to any one molecule, leaving the others with none, we can give two units to one molecule and one unit to another, or we can share out the energy equally and give one unit to each molecule. All told, there are ten possible ways of distributing three units of energy among three identical molecules as shown here:

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    Each of these ten possibilities represents a distinct microstate that will describe the system at any instant in time. Those microstates that possess identical distributions of energy among the accessible quantum levels (and differ only in which particular molecules occupy the levels) are known as configurations. Because all microstates are equally probable, the probability of any one configuration is proportional to the number of microstates that can produce it. Thus in the system shown above, the configuration labeled ii will be observed 60% of the time, while iii will occur only 10% of the time.

    As the number of molecules and the number of quanta increases, the number of accessible microstates grows explosively; if 1000 quanta of energy are shared by 1000 molecules, the number of available microstates will be around 10600— a number that greatly exceeds the number of atoms in the observable universe! The number of possible configurations (as defined above) also increases, but in such a way as to greatly reduce the probability of all but the most probable configurations. Thus for a sample of a gas large enough to be observable under normal conditions, only a single configuration (energy distribution amongst the quantum states) need be considered; even the second-most-probable configuration can be neglected.

    The bottom line: any collection of molecules large enough in numbers to have chemical significance will have its thermal energy distributed over an unimaginably large number of microstates. The number of microstates increases exponentially as more energy states ("configurations" as defined above) become accessible owing to

    • Addition of energy quanta (higher temperature),
    • Increase in the number of molecules (resulting from dissociation, for example).
    • the volume of the system increases (which decreases the spacing between energy states, allowing more of them to be populated at a given temperature.)

    Spontaneous Process: Heat Death

    Energy is conserved; if you lift a book off the table, and let it fall, the total amount of energy in the world remains unchanged. All you have done is transferred it from the form in which it was stored within the glucose in your body to your muscles, and then to the book (that is, you did work on the book by moving it up against the earth’s gravitational field). After the book has fallen, this same quantity of energy exists as thermal energy (heat) in the book and table top.

    What has changed, however, is the availability of this energy. Once the energy has spread into the huge number of thermal microstates in the warmed objects, the probability of its spontaneously (that is, by chance) becoming un-dispersed is essentially zero. Thus although the energy is still “there”, it is forever beyond utilization or recovery. The profundity of this conclusion was recognized around 1900, when it was first described at the “heat death” of the world. This refers to the fact that every spontaneous process (essentially every change that occurs) is accompanied by the “dilution” of energy. The obvious implication is that all of the molecular-level kinetic energy will be spread out completely, and nothing more will ever happen.

    Spontaneous Process: Gases Expansions

    Everybody knows that a gas, if left to itself, will tend to expand and fill the volume within which it is confined completely and uniformly. What “drives” this expansion? At the simplest level it is clear that with more space available, random motions of the individual molecules will inevitably disperse them throughout the space. But as we mentioned above, the allowed energy states that molecules can occupy are spaced more closely in a larger volume than in a smaller one. The larger the volume available to the gas, the greater the number of microstates its thermal energy can occupy. Since all such states within the thermally accessible range of energies are equally probable, the expansion of the gas can be viewed as a consequence of the tendency of thermal energy to be spread and shared as widely as possible. Once this has happened, the probability that this sharing of energy will reverse itself (that is, that the gas will spontaneously contract) is so minute as to be unthinkable.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    Imagine a gas initially confined to one half of a box (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). The barrier is then removed so that it can expand into the full volume of the container. We know that the entropy of the gas will increase as the thermal energy of its molecules spreads into the enlarged space. In terms of the spreading of thermal energy, Figure Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) may be helpful. The tendency of a gas to expand is due to the more closely-spaced thermal energy states in the larger volume alt.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The pink shading represents the thermally-accessible range of microstates for a given temperature. (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    Spontaneous Process: Mixing and dilution

    Mixing and dilution really amount to the same thing, especially for ideal gases. Replace the pair of containers shown above with one containing two kinds of molecules in the separate sections (Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)). When we remove the barrier, the "red" and "blue" molecules will each expand into the space of the other. (Recall Dalton's Law that "each gas is a vacuum to the other gas"). However, notice that although each gas underwent an expansion, the overall process amounts to what we call "mixing".

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Mixing of a gas. (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    What is true for gaseous molecules can, in principle, apply also to solute molecules dissolved in a solvent. But bear in mind that whereas the enthalpy associated with the expansion of a perfect gas is by definition zero, ΔH's of mixing of two liquids or of dissolving a solute in a solvent have finite values which may limit the miscibility of liquids or the solubility of a solute.

    But what's really dramatic is that when just one molecule of a second gas is introduced into the container (alt in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)), an unimaginably huge number of new configurations become possible, greatly increasing the number of microstates that are thermally accessible (as indicated by the pink shading above).

    Spontaneous Process: Thermal Equilibrium

    Just as gases spontaneously change their volumes from “smaller-to-larger”, the flow of heat from a warmer body to a cooler one always operates in the direction “warmer-to-cooler” because this allows thermal energy to populate a larger number of energy microstates as new ones are made available by bringing the cooler body into contact with the warmer one; in effect, the thermal energy becomes more “diluted”.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Part a of the figure is a schematic depiction of the thermal energy states in two separated identical bodies at different temperatures indicated by shading. (CC BY-NC; Ümit Kaya based off of figure by Stephen Lower)

    When the bodies are brought into thermal contact (b), thermal energy flows from the higher occupied levels in the warmer object into the unoccupied levels of the cooler one until equal numbers are occupied in both bodies, bringing them to the same temperature. As you might expect, the increase in the amount of energy spreading and sharing is proportional to the amount of heat transferred q, but there is one other factor involved, and that is the temperature at which the transfer occurs. When a quantity of heat q passes into a system at temperature T, the degree of dilution of the thermal energy is given by

    \[\dfrac{q}{T} \label{eq70}\]

    To understand why we have to divide by the temperature, consider the effect of very large and very small values of \(T\) in the denominator of Equation \ref{eq70}. If the body receiving the heat is initially at a very low temperature, relatively few thermal energy states are initially occupied, so the amount of energy spreading into vacant states can be very great. Conversely, if the temperature is initially large, more thermal energy is already spread around within it, and absorption of the additional energy will have a relatively small effect on the degree of thermal disorder within the body.


    Entropy is a measure of the degree of spreading and sharing of thermal energy within a system. This “spreading and sharing” can be spreading of the thermal energy into a larger volume of space or its sharing amongst previously inaccessible microstates of the system. The following box shows how this concept applies to a number of common processes.

    Observations and Explanations in terms of Entropy changes

    A deck of cards is shuffled, or 100 coins, initially heads up, are randomly tossed.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    This has nothing to do with entropy because macro objects are unable to exchange thermal energy with the surroundings within the time scale of the process

    Two identical blocks of copper, one at 20°C and the other at 40°C, are placed in contact.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    The cooler block contains more unoccupied microstates, so heat flows from the warmer block until equal numbers of microstates are populated in the two blocks.

    A gas expands isothermally to twice its initial volume.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    A constant amount of thermal energy spreads over a larger volume of space

    1 mole of water is heated by 1C°.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    The increased thermal energy makes additional microstates accessible. (The increase is by a factor of about 1020,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000.)

    Equal volumes of two gases are allowed to mix.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    The effect is the same as allowing each gas to expand to twice its volume; the thermal energy in each is now spread over a larger volume.

    One mole of dihydrogen, H2, is placed in a container and heated to 3000K.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    Some of the \(\ce{H2}\) dissociates to \(\ce{H}\) atoms because at this temperature there are more thermally accessible microstates in the 2 moles of \(\ce{H}\) atoms.

    The above reaction mixture is cooled to 300 K.

    Source of Entropy Increase of System

    The composition shifts back to virtually all \(\ce{H2}\) because this molecule contains more thermally accessible microstates at low temperatures.

    This page titled 2.6: Quantum States, Microstates, and Energy Spreading is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephen Lower via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.