States of Matter


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Kinetic Molecular Theory

As it turns out, there are several known states of matter ; a few of them are detailed below. Solids are formed when the attractive forces between individual molecules are greater than the energy causing them to move apart. Individual molecules are locked in position near each other, and cannot move past one another.

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The atoms or molecules of solids remain in motion. However, that motion is limited to vibrational energy; individual molecules stay fixed in place and vibrate next to each other. As the temperature of a solid is increased, the amount of vibration increases, but the solid retains its shape and volume because the molecules are locked in place relative to each other.

States of Matter

To view an example of this, click on the animation below which shows the molecular structure of ice crystals. Liquids are formed when the energy usually in the form of heat of a system is increased and the rigid structure of the solid state is broken down. In liquids , molecules can move past one another and bump into other molecules; however, they remain relatively close to each other like solids.

Often in liquids , intermolecular forces such as the hydrogen bonds shown in the animation below pull molecules together and are quickly broken. As the temperature of a liquid is increased, the amount of movement of individual molecules increases. As a result, liquids can "flow" to take the shape of their container but they cannot be easily compressed because the molecules are already close together.

Thus, liquids have an undefined shape, but a defined volume.

Quark-gluon plasma (QGP)

In the example animation below, we see that liquid water is made up of molecules that can freely move past one another, yet remain relatively close in distance to each other. Gases are formed when the energy in the system exceeds all of the attractive forces between molecules. Thus gas molecules have little interaction with each other beyond occasionally bumping into one another. In the gas state, molecules move quickly and are free to move in any direction, spreading out long distances. As the temperature of a gas increases, the amount of movement of individual molecules increases.

Gases expand to fill their containers and have low density. Because individual molecules are widely separated and can move around easily in the gas state, gases can be compressed easily and they have an undefined shape. Solids, liquids , and gases are the most common states of matter that exist on our planet.

If you would like to compare the three states to one another, click on the comparison animation below. Note the differences in molecular motion of water molecules in these three states. Plasmas are hot, ionized gases. Plasmas are formed under conditions of extremely high energy , so high, in fact, that molecules are ripped apart and only free atoms exist.

What are the states of matter?

More astounding, plasmas have so much energy that the outer electrons are actually ripped off of individual atoms, thus forming a gas of highly energetic, charged ions. Because the atoms in plasma exist as charged ions, plasmas behave differently than gases, thus representing a fourth state of matter. Plasmas can be commonly seen simply by looking upward; the high energy conditions that exist in stars such as our sun force individual atoms into the plasma state.

As we have seen, increasing energy leads to more molecular motion.


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Conversely, decreasing energy results in less molecular motion. As a result, one prediction of Kinetic Molecular Theory is that if we continue to decrease the energy measured as temperature of a substance, we will reach a point at which all molecular motion stops.

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The temperature at which molecular motion stops is called absolute zero and has been calculated to be While scientists have cooled substances to temperatures close to absolute zero , they have never actually reached absolute zero. The difficulty with observing a substance at absolute zero is that to "see" the substance, light is needed, and light itself transfers energy to the substance, thus raising the temperature. Despite these challenges, scientists have recently observed a fifth state of matter that only exists at temperatures very close to absolute zero.

Bose-Einstein Condensates represent a fifth state of matter only seen for the first time in The state is named after Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein who predicted its existence in the s. B-E condensates are gaseous superfluids cooled to temperatures very near absolute zero. In this weird state, all the atoms of the condensate attain the same quantum-mechanical state and can flow past one another without friction.

States of Matter

Even more strangely, B-E condensates can actually "trap" light , releasing it when the state breaks down. Several other less common states of matter have also either been described or actually seen. Some of these states include liquid crystals , fermionic condensates , superfluids, supersolids, and the aptly named strange matter.

To read more about these phases, see "Phase" in our Resources for this module. The transformation of one state of matter into another state is called a phase transition. The more common phase transitions even have names; for example, the terms melting and freezing describe phase transitions between the solid and liquid state, and the terms evaporation and condensation describe transitions between the liquid and gas state. States of Matter We look at five states of matter on the site.

Solids, liquids, gases, plasmas, and Bose-Einstein condensates BEC are different states of matter that have different physical properties. Solids are often hard, liquids fill containers, and gases surround us in the air. Each of these states is also known as a phase.

All the States of Matter You Didn't Know Existed

How does matter change from one state to another? Elements and compounds can move from one state to another when specific physical conditions change. For example, when the temperature of a system goes up, the matter in the system becomes more excited and active. If enough energy is pushed into a system, a phase change may occur as the matter moves to a more active state. When the temperature of the water goes up, the molecules get more excited and bounce around a lot more.

If you give a liquid water molecule enough energy, it escapes the liquid phase and becomes a gas. The extra energy allows the molecules to change states. Have you ever noticed that you can smell a turkey dinner after it starts to heat up?


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  • As the energy of the molecules inside the turkey heat up, they escape as a gas. You are able to smell the volatile compounds that are mixed in the air around you. The key word to notice is "physical". Matter only moves from one phase to another by physical means.

    If energy is added increasing the temperature or if energy is taken away freezing something , you can create a physical change. Changing the pressure of a system is another way to create a physical change. If you place a glass of liquid water on a table, it will just sit there. If you place a glass of water in a vacuum chamber and lower the pressure, you can begin to watch the water boil and the water molecules move to a gas phase. When molecules move from one phase to another they are still the same substance. There is water vapor above a pot of boiling water.

    That vapor or gas can condense and become a drop of liquid water in the cooler air. If you put that liquid drop in the freezer, it would become a solid piece of ice. No matter what physical state it was in, it was always water. Even though the physical state changed, the chemical properties were the same.

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