Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dimensional analysis (and the units of the universal gas constant 'R')

Dimensional analysis

The problem at hand is to find by dimensional analysis, the SI units of the universal gas constant $R$ (forgive me - whilst this entry is not explicitly about computer programming - it is in fact one of my daughter's homework problems - the obvious relationship to type systems makes it seem to me at least tangentially relevant).

$R$ is defined by the Ideal Gas Law: $PV = nRT$ were $P$ is the absolute pressure of the gas, $V$ is the volume of the gas, $n$ is the amount of substance of gas (measured in moles), and $T$ is the absolute temperature of the gas.

The obvious dimensions are as follows :

$\left[P\right]$: $M \cdot L^{-1}\cdot T^{-2}$, $\left[V\right]$: $L^3$ and $\left[T\right]$: $\Theta$.

Now, one mole of a substance is defined to be $6.0221367\times 10^{23}$ atoms of that substance (Avogardro's number) but even dimensionless numbers can be part of a dimensioned system. The trick is to realize that if one quantity in an equation is "per mole" then so too must be any quantity added to it. Accordingly, if we define a (pseudo) dimension $\Lambda$ for the amount $n$ we can reason that $\left[R\right]$: $M \cdot L^{2} \cdot T^{-2} \cdot \Theta^{-1} \cdot \Lambda^{-1}$. This is enough for us to say the fundamental units for $R$ are

$kg \cdot m^{2} \cdot s^{-2} \cdot K^{-1} \cdot mol^{-1}$.

We can go a little further though. Since $work = force \times length$ we see that $M \cdot L \cdot T^{-2}$ can be expressed in units of energy and indeed $1J = kg \cdot m^{2} \cdot s^{-2}$. Thus we arrive at our final conclusion. $R$ can be written with units

$J \cdot K^{-1} \cdot mol^{-1}$.

The beautiful thing though is this. The physical interpretation of the ideal gas law is saying that, for an ideal gas, of any kind, "the energy per degree per mole" is a constant (that constant being $\approx 8.3144 \frac{^J/_K}{mol}$)!