Internal Energy – First Law of Thermodynamics

Internal Energy – Thermal Energy

Potential energy and kinetic energy, that was discussed in previous chapters, are macroscopic forms of energy. They are dependent on macroscopic variables such as the position and the velocity of objects.

In thermodynamics, internal energy (also called the thermal energy) is defined as the energy associated with microscopic forms of energy. It is an extensive quantity, it depends on the size of the system, or on the amount of substance it contains. The SI unit of internal energy is the joule (J). It is the energy contained within the system, excluding the kinetic energy of motion of the system as a whole and the potential energy of the system. Microscopic forms of energy include those due to the rotation, vibration, translation, and interactions among the molecules of a substance. None of these forms of energy can be measured or evaluated directly, but techniques have been developed to evaluate the change in the total sum of all these microscopic forms of energy.

In addition, energy is can be stored in the chemical bonds between the atoms that make up the molecules. This energy storage on the atomic level includes energy associated with electron orbital states, nuclear spin, and binding forces in the nucleus.

Internal energy is represented by the symbol U, and the change in internal energy in a process is U2 – U1.

Internal Energy and the First Law of Thermodynamics

In thermodynamics the concept of energy is broadened to account for other observed changes, and the principle of conservation of energy is extended to include a wide variety of ways in which systems interact with their surroundings. The only ways the energy of a closed system can be changed are through transfer of energy by work or by heat. Further, based on the experiments of Joule and others, a fundamental aspect of the energy concept is that energy is conserved. This principle is known as the first law of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics can be written in various forms:

In words:


Physical layout of the four main devices used in the Rankine cycle and basic energy transfers.

Equation form:

∆Eint = Q – W

where Eint represents the internal energy of the material, which depends only on the material’s state (temperature, pressure, and volume). Q is the net heat added to the system and W is the net work done by the system. We must be careful and consistent in following the sign conventions for Q and W. Because W in the equation is the work done by the system, then if work is done on the system, W will be negative and Eint will increase.

Similarly, Q is positive for heat added to the system, so if heat leaves the system, Q is negative. This tells us the following: The internal energy of a system tends to increase if heat is absorbed by the system or if positive work is done on the system. Conversely, the internal energy tends to decrease if heat is lost by the system or if negative work is done on the system. It must be added Q and W are path dependent, while Eint is path independent.

Differential form:

dEint = dQ  – dW

The internal energy Eint of a system tends to increase if energy is added as heat Q and tends to decrease if energy is lost as work W done by the system.

See also: Open System – Closed System – Isolated System

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. Kenneth S. Krane. Introductory Nuclear Physics, 3rd Edition, Wiley, 1987, ISBN: 978-0471805533
  7. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  8. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  9. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above:

Internal Energy