Guest post by Robert G. Brown
Duke University Physics Department
In 2003 a paper was published in Energy & Environment by Hans Jelbring that asserted that a gravitationally bound, adiabatically isolated shell of ideal gas would exhibit a thermodynamically stable adiabatic lapse rate. No plausible explanation was offered for this state being thermodynamically stable – indeed, the explanation involved a moving air parcel:
An adiabatically moving air parcel has no energy loss or gain to the surroundings. For example, when an air parcel ascends the temperature has to decrease because of internal energy exchange due to the work against the gravity field.
This argument was not unique to Jelbring (in spite of his assertion otherwise):
The theoretically deducible influence of gravity on GE has rarely been acknowledged by climate change scientists for unknown reasons.
The adiabatic lapse rate was and is a standard feature in nearly every textbook on physical climatology. It is equally well known there that it is a dynamical consequence of the atmosphere being an open system. Those same textbooks carefully demonstrate that there is no lapse rate in an ideal gas in a gravitational field in thermal equilibrium because, as is well known, thermal equilibrium is an isothermal state; nothing as simple as gravity can function like a “Maxwell’s Demon” to cause the spontaneous stable equilibrium separation of gas molecules into hotter and colder reservoirs.
Spontaneous separation of a reservoir of gas into stable sub-reservoirs at different temperatures violates the second law of thermodynamics. It is a direct, literal violation of the refrigerator statement of the second law of thermodynamics as it causes and maintains such a separation without the input of external work. As is usually the case, violation of the refrigeration statement allows heat engines to be constructed that do nothing but convert heat into work – violating the “no perfectly efficient heat engine” statement as well.
The proposed adiabatic thermal lapse rate in EEJ is:
where g is the gravitational acceleration (presumed approximately constant throughout the spherical shell) and cp is the heat capacity per kilogram of the particular “ideal” gas at constant pressure. The details of the arguments for an adiabatic lapse rate in open systems is unimportant, nor does it matter what cp is as long as it is not zero or infinity.
What matters is that EEJ asserts that in stable thermodynamic equilibrium.
The purpose of this short paper is to demonstrate that such a system is not, in fact, in thermal equilibrium and that the correct static equilibrium distribution of gas in the system is the usual isothermal distribution.
The Failure of Equilibrium
In figure 1 above, an adiabatically isolated column of an ideal gas is illustrated. According to EEJ, this gas spontaneously equilibrates into a state where the temperature at the bottom of the column Tb is strictly greater than the temperature Tt at the top of the column. The magnitude of the difference, and the mechanism proposed for this separation are irrelevant, save to note that the internal conductivity of the ideal gas is completely neglected. It is assumed that the only mechanism for achieving equilibrium is physical (adiabatic) mixing of the air, mixing that in some fundamental sense does not allow for the fact that even an ideal gas conducts heat.
Note well the implication of stability. If additional heat is added to or removed from this container, it will always distribute itself in such a way as to maintain the lapse rate, which is a constant independent of absolute temperature. If the distribution of energy in the container is changed, then gravity will cause a flow of heat that will return the distribution of energy to one with Tb > Tt . For an ideal gas in an adiabatic container in a gravitational field, one will always observe the gas in this state once equilibrium is established, and while the time required to achieve equilibrium is not given in EEJ, it is presumably commensurate with convective mixing times of ordinary gases within the container and hence not terribly long.
Now imagine that the bottom of the container and top of the container are connected with a solid conductive material, e.g. a silver wire (adiabatically insulated except where it is in good thermal contact with the gas at the top and bottom of the container) of length L . Such a wire admits the thermally driven conduction of heat according to Fourier’s Law:
where λ is the thermal conductivity of silver, A is the cross-sectional area of the wire, and ΔT=Tb-Tt . This is an empirical law, and in no way depends on whether or not the wire is oriented horizontally or vertically (although there is a small correction for the bends in the wire above if one actually solves the heat equation for the particular geometry – this correction is completely irrelevant to the argument, however).
As one can see in figure 2, there can be no question that heat will flow in this silver wire. Its two ends are maintained at different temperatures. It will therefore systematically transfer heat energy from the bottom of the air column to the top via thermal conduction through the silver as long as the temperature difference is maintained.
One now has a choice:
- If EEJ is correct, the heat added to the top will redistribute itself to maintain the adiabatic lapse rate. How rapidly it does so compared to the rate of heat flow through the silver is irrelevant. The inescapable point is that in order to do so, there has to be net heat transfer from the top of the gas column to the bottom whenever the temperature of the top and bottom deviate from the adiabatic lapse rate if it is indeed a thermal equilibrium state.
- Otherwise, heat will flow from the bottom to the top until they are at the same temperature. At this point the top and the bottom are indeed in thermal equilibrium.
It is hopefully clear that the first of these statements is impossible. Heat will flow in this system forever; it will never reach thermal equilibrium. Thermal equilibrium for the silver no longer means the same thing as thermal equilibrium for the gas – heat only fails to flow in the silver when it is isothermal, but heat only fails to flow in the gas when it exhibits an adiabatic lapse in temperature that leaves it explicitly not isothermal. The combined system can literally never reach thermal equilibrium.
Of course this is nonsense. Any such system would quickly reach thermal equilibrium – one where the top and bottom of the gas are at an equal temperature. Nor does one require a silver wire to accomplish this. The gas is perfectly capable of conducting heat from the bottom of the container to the top all by itself!
One is then left with an uncomfortable picture of the gas moving constantly – heat must be adiabatically convected downward to the bottom of the container in figure 1 in ongoing opposition to the upward directed flow of heat due to the fact that Fourier’s Law applies to the ideal gas in such a way that equilibrium is never reached!
Of course, this will not happen. The gas in the container will quickly reach equilibrium. What will that equilibrium look like? The answer is contained in almost any introductory physics textbook. Take an ideal gas in thermal equilibrium:
where N is the number of molecules in the volume V, k is Boltzmann’s constant, and T is the temperature in degrees Kelvin. n is the number of moles of gas in question and R is the ideal gas constant. If we assume a constant temperature in the adiabatically isolated container, one gets the following formula for the density of an ideal gas:
where M is the molar mass, the number of kilograms of the gas per mole.
The formula for that describes the static equilibrium of a fluid is unchanged by the compressibility (or lack thereof) of the fluid – for the fluid to be in force balance the variation of the pressure must be:
(so that the pressure decreases with height, assuming a non-negative density). If we multiply both sides by dz and integrate, now we get:
Exponentiating both sides of this expression, we get the usual exponential isothermal lapse in the pressure, and by extension the density:
where P0 is the pressure at z=0 (the bottom of the container).
This describes a gas that is manifestly:
- In static force equilibrium. There is no bulk transport of the gas as buoyancy and gravity are in perfect balance throughout.
- In thermal equilibrium. There is no thermal gradient in the gas to drive the conduction of heat.
If this system is perturbed away from equilibrium, it will quickly return to this combination of static and thermal equilibrium, as both are stable. Even in the case of a gas with an adiabatic lapse rate (e.g. the atmosphere) remarkably small deviations are observed from the predicted P(z) one gets treating the atmosphere as an ideal gas. An adiabatically isolated gas initially prepared in a state with an adiabatic lapse rate will thermally equilibrate due to the internal conduction of heat within the gas by all mechanisms and relax to precisely this state.
As we can see, it is an introductory physics textbook exercise to demonstrate that an adiabatically isolated column of gas in a gravitational field cannot have a thermal gradient maintained by gravity. The same can readily be demonstrated by correctly using thermodynamics at a higher level or by using statistical mechanics, but it is not really necessary. The elementary argument already suffices to show violation of both the zeroth and second laws of thermodynamics by the assertion itself.
In nature, the dry adiabatic lapse rate of air in the atmosphere is maintained because the system is differentially heated from below causing parcels of air to constantly move up and down. Reverse that to a cooling, like those observed during the winter in the air above Antarctica, and the lapse rate readily inverts. Follow the air column up above the troposphere and the lapse rate fails to be observed in the stratosphere, precisely where vertical convection stops dominating heat transport. The EEJ assertion, that the dry adiabatic lapse rate alone explains the bulk of so-called “greenhouse warming” of the atmosphere as a stable feature of a bulk equilibrium gas, is incorrect.