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Absorption Of Radiant Heat By Gases

( Originally Published 1905 )



We have now to submit these considerations to the only test by which they can be tried, namely, that of experiment. An experiment is well defined as a question put to Nature; but, to avoid the risk of asking amiss, we ought to purify the question from all adjuncts which do not necessarily belong to it. Matter has been shown to be composed of elementary constituents, by the compounding of which all its varieties are produced. But, besides the chemical unions which they form, both elementary and compound bodies can unite in another and less intimate way. Gases and vapors aggregate to liquids and solids, without any change of their chemical nature. We do not yet know how the transmission of radiant heat may be affected by the entanglement due to cohesion; and, as our object now is to examine the influence of chemical union alone, we shall render our experiments more pure by liberating the atoms and molecules entirely from the bonds of cohesion, and employing them in the gaseous or vaporous form.

Let us endeavor to obtain a perfectly clear mental image of the problem now before us. Limiting in the first place our inquiries to the phenomena of absorption, we have to picture a succession of waves issuing from a radiant source and passing through a gas; some of them striking against the gaseous molecules and yielding up their motion to the latter; others gliding round the molecules, or passing through the inter-molecular spaces without apparent hindrance. The problem before us is to determine whether such free molecules have any power whatever to stop the waves of heat; and if so, whether different molecules possess this power in different degrees.

In examining the problem let us fall back upon an actual piece of work, choosing as the source of our heat-waves a plate of copper, against the back of which a steady sheet of flame is permitted to play. On emerging from the copper, the waves, in the first instance, pass through a space devoid of air, and then enter a hollow glass cylinder, three feet long and three inches wide. The two ends of this cylinder are stopped by two plates of rock-salt, a solid substance which offers a scarcely sensible obstacle to the passage of the calorific waves. After passing through the tube, the radiant heat falls upon the anterior face of a thermo-electric pile,' which instantly converts the heat into an electric current. This current conducted round a magnetic needle deflects it, and the magnitude of the deflection is a measure of the heat falling upon the pile. This famous instrument, and not an ordinary thermometer, is what we shall use in these inquiries, but we shall use it in a somewhat novel way. As long as the two opposite faces of the thermo-electric pile are kept at the same temperature, no matter how high that may be, there is no current generated. The current is a consequence of a difference of temperature between the two opposite faces of the pile. Hence, if after the anterior face has received the heat from our radiating source, a second source, which we may call the compensating source, be permitted to radiate against the posterior face, this latter radiation will tend to neutralize the former. When the neutralization is perfect, the magnetic needle connected with the pile is no longer deflected, but points to the zero of the graduated circle over which it hangs.

And now let us suppose the glass tube, through which the waves from the heated plate of copper are passing, to be exhausted by an air-pump, the two sources of heat acting at the same time on the two opposite faces of the pile. When, by means of an adjusting screen, perfectly equal quantities of heat are imparted to the two faces, the needle points to zero. Let any gas be now permitted to enter the exhausted tube; if its molecules possess any power of intercepting the calorific waves, the equilibrium previously existing will be destroyed, the compensating source will triumph, and a deflection of the magnetic needle will be the immediate consequence. From the deflections thus produced by different gases we can readily deduce the relative amounts of wave-motion which their molecules intercept.

In this way the substances mentioned in the following table were examined, a small portion only of each being admitted into the glass tube. The quantity admitted in each case was just sufficient to depress a column of mercury associated with the tube one inch: in other words, the gases were examined at a pressure of one-thirtieth of an atmosphere. - The numbers in the table express the relative amounts of wave-motion absorbed by the respective gases, the quantity intercepted by atmospheric air being taken as unity.

Every gas in this table is perfectly transparent to light, that is to say, all waves within the limits of the visible spectrum pass through it without obstruction; but for the waves of slower period, emanating from our heated plate of copper, enormous differences of absorptive power are manifested. These differences illustrate in the most unexpected manner the influence of chemical combination. Thus the elementary gases, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, and the mixture atmospheric air, prove to be practical vacua to the rays of heat; for every ray, or, more strictly speaking, for every unit of wave-motion, which any one of them intercepts, perfectly transparent ammonia intercepts 5,460 units, olefiant gas 6,030 units, while sulphurous acid gas absorbs 6,480 units. What becomes of the wave-motion thus intercepted ? It is applied to the heating of the absorbing gas. Through air, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, the waves of ether pass without absorption, and these gases are not sensibly changed in temperature by the most powerful calorific rays. The position of nitrous oxide in the foregoing table is worthy of particular notice. In this gas we have the same atoms in a state of chemical union that exist uncombined in the atmosphere; but the absorption of the compound is 1,800 times that of air.



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