2-3-4. The Laws of Thermodynamics
Biological organisms are open systems. Energy is exchanged between them and their surroundings, as they consume energy-storing molecules and release energy to the environment by doing work. Like all things in the physical world, energy is subject to the laws of physics. The laws of thermodynamics govern the transfer of energy in and among all systems in the universe.
The First Law of Thermodynamics
The first law of thermodynamics deals with the total amount of energy in the universe. It states that this total amount of energy is constant. In other words, there has always been, and always will be, exactly the same amount of energy in the universe. Energy exists in many different forms. According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy may be transferred from place to place or transformed into different forms, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The transfers and transformations of energy take place around us all the time. Light bulbs transform electrical energy into light energy. Gas stoves transform chemical energy from natural gas into heat energy. Plants perform one of the most biologically useful energy transformations on earth: that of converting the energy of sunlight into the chemical energy stored within organic molecules (Section 2-3-2 Figure 1). Some examples of energy transformations are shown in Figure 1.
The challenge for all living organisms is to obtain energy from their surroundings in forms that they can transfer or transform into usable energy to do work. Living cells have evolved to meet this challenge very well. Chemical energy stored within organic molecules such as sugars and fats is transformed through a series of cellular chemical reactions into energy within molecules of ATP. Energy in ATP molecules is easily accessible to do work. Examples of the types of work that cells need to do include building complex molecules, transporting materials, powering the beating motion of cilia or flagella, contracting muscle fibers to create movement, and reproduction.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics
A living cell’s primary tasks of obtaining, transforming, and using energy to do work may seem simple. However, the second law of thermodynamics explains why these tasks are harder than they appear. None of the energy transfers we’ve discussed, along with all energy transfers and transformations in the universe, is completely efficient. In every energy transfer, some amount of energy is lost in a form that is unusable. In most cases, this form is heat energy. Thermodynamically,
An important concept in physical systems is that of order and disorder (also known as randomness). The more energy that is lost by a system to its surroundings, the less ordered and more random the system is. Scientists refer to the measure of randomness or disorder within a system as
Transfer of Energy and the Resulting Entropy
Set up a simple experiment to understand how energy is transferred and how a change in entropy results.
All physical systems can be thought of in this way: Living things are highly ordered, requiring constant energy input to be maintained in a state of low entropy. As living systems take in energy-storing molecules and transform them through chemical reactions, they lose some amount of usable energy in the process, because no reaction is completely efficient. They also produce waste and by-products that aren’t useful energy sources. This process increases the entropy of the system’s surroundings. Since all energy transfers result in the loss of some usable energy, the second law of thermodynamics states that every energy transfer or transformation increases the entropy of the universe. Even though living things are highly ordered and maintain a state of low entropy, the entropy of the universe in total is constantly increasing due to the loss of usable energy with each energy transfer that occurs. Essentially, living things are in a continuous uphill battle against this constant increase in universal entropy.
In studying energy, scientists use the term “system” to refer to the matter and its environment involved in energy transfers. Everything outside of the system is called the surroundings. Single cells are biological systems. Systems can be thought of as having a certain amount of order. It takes energy to make a system more ordered. The more ordered a system is, the lower its entropy. Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system. As a system becomes more disordered, the lower its energy and the higher its entropy become.
A series of laws, called the laws of thermodynamics, describe the properties and processes of energy transfer. The first law states that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. This means that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transferred or transformed. The second law of thermodynamics states that every energy transfer involves some loss of energy in an unusable form, such as heat energy, resulting in a more disordered system. In other words, no energy transfer is completely efficient and tends toward disorder.
Which of the following is not an example of an energy transformation?
Label each of the following systems as high or low entropy: i. the instant that a perfume bottle is sprayed compared with 30 seconds later, ii. an old 1950s car compared with a brand new car, and iii. a living cell compared with a dead cell.
Imagine an elaborate ant farm with tunnels and passageways through the sand where ants live in a large community. Now imagine that an earthquake shook the ground and demolished the ant farm. In which of these two scenarios, before or after the earthquake, was the ant farm system in a state of higher or lower entropy?
The ant farm had lower entropy before the earthquake because it was a highly ordered system. After the earthquake, the system became much more disordered and had higher entropy.
Energy transfers take place constantly in everyday activities. Think of two scenarios: cooking on a stove and driving. Explain how the second law of thermodynamics applies to these two scenarios.
While cooking, food is heating up on the stove, but not all of the heat goes to cooking the food, some of it is lost as heat energy to the surrounding air, increasing entropy. While driving, cars burn gasoline to run the engine and move the car. This reaction is not completely efficient, as some energy during this process is lost as heat energy, which is why the hood and the components underneath it heat up while the engine is turned on. The tires also heat up because of friction with the pavement, which is additional energy loss. This energy transfer, like all others, also increases entropy.