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A gas (sometimes referred to as a vapor[1]) is one of the four major states of matter (after solid and liquid, and followed by plasma) that subsequently appear when a solid material is subjected to increasingly higher temperatures. Thus, as energy in the form of heat is added, a solid (e.g., ice) will first melt to become a liquid (e.g., water), which will then boil or evaporate to become a gas (e.g., water vapor). In some circumstances, a solid (e.g., dry ice) can directly turn into a gas: this is called sublimation. If the gas is further heated, its atoms or molecules can become (wholly or partially) ionized, turning the gas into a plasma.


In a gas phase, the atoms or molecules constituting the matter basically move independently, with no forces keeping them together or pushing them apart. Their only interactions are rare and random collisions. The particles move in random directions, at high speed. The range in speed is dependent on the temperature and defined by the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Therefore, the gas phase is a completely disordered state. Following the second law of thermodynamics, gas particles will immediately diffuse to homogeneously fill any shape or volume of space that is made available to them.

The thermodynamic state of a gas is characterized by its volume, its temperature which is determined by the average velocity or kinetic energy of the molecules, and its pressure which measures the average force exerted by the molecules colliding against a surface. These variables are related by the fundamental gas laws, which state that the pressure in an ideal gas is proportional to its temperature and number of molecules, but inversely proportional to its volume.

Like liquids and plasmas, gases are fluids: they have the ability to flow and do not tend to return to their former configuration after deformation, although they do have viscosity. Unlike liquids, however, unconstrained gases do not occupy a fixed volume, but expand to fill whatever space they can occupy. The kinetic energy per molecule in a gas is the second greatest of the states of matter (after plasma). Because of this high kinetic energy, gas atoms and molecules tend to bounce off of any containing surface and off one another, the more powerfully as the kinetic energy is increased. A common misconception is that the collisions of the molecules with each other is essential to explain gas pressure, but in fact their random velocities are sufficient to define that quantity. Mutual collisions are important only for establishing the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution.

Gas particles are normally well separated, as opposed to liquid particles, which are in contact. A material particle (say a dust mote) in a gas moves in Brownian motion. Since it is at the limit of (or beyond) current technology to observe individual gas particles (atoms or molecules), only theoretical calculations give suggestions as to how they move, but their motion is different from Brownian motion. The reason is that Brownian motion involves a smooth drag due to the frictional force of many gas molecules, punctuated by violent collisions of an individual (or several) gas molecule(s) with the particle. The particle (generally consisting of millions or billions of atoms) thus moves in a jagged course, yet not so jagged as we would expect to find if we could examine an individual gas molecule.

The terms gas and vapor

There is no significant physical or chemical difference between a gas and a vapor. However, the words have slightly different connotations and there is often considerable overlap between the connotations, so precise distinctions are not necessary and probably not even possible.[2][3][4][5]

Almost all physics, chemistry and engineering textbooks refer to the states of matter as solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Rarely, if ever, do the states of matter include vapor rather than gas.

One way in which the word vapor sometimes replaces the word gas is when the gaseous phase is in equilibrium with the corresponding liquid or solid. We call the pressure of the gas phase in equilibrium with the corresponding liquid phase vapor pressure. We connote the equilibrium of the gas and liquid phases of a substance as vapor-liquid equilibrium. But note that all of the connotations are defined as the equilibrium between a gas phase and a liquid phase.

The boiling point of a liquid may be defined as the temperature at which it changes its state of matter from a liquid to a gas, but we connote that phase change as vaporization. We also connote the heat required to change a liquid into a gas as the heat of vaporization.

Then there are definitions like: a vapor is the gaseous form of a liquid, the word vapor describes the gaseous state of a substance and water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas.

These are some of the common connotations of the word vapor; there is no physical or chemical difference between a gas and a vapor and the words are often used interchangeably.

Elemental gases

Elemental gases many be monatomic, diatomic, or triatomic. For example:

Some types of gases


The word "gas" was apparently proposed by the 17th century Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont, as a phonetic spelling of his Dutch pronunciation of the Greek word "chaos", which was used since 1538 after Paracelsus for "air".


  1. American spelling: the British variant is vapour
  2. Lecture by Professor Michael Mombourquette, Queens University Canada
  3. Richard W. Miller (1996). Flow Measurement Engineering Handbook, Third Edition. McGraw-Hill, page 2.1. 0-07-042366-0. 
  4. The Meaning of Vapor, Gas, Fluid by Dr. John Denker
  5. Vaporization: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 2008