Sunday, February 12, 2017

Nothing's as cool as seeing the heat

Next week I begin my Thermodynamics unit which includes discussing the 0th, 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics. When I teach the First Law of Thermodynamics, we discuss how it is basically a restatement of the Conservation of Energy. A favorite demo of this is to use large ball bearings that get slammed together on either side of paper. They are often called "colliding spheres" and are a really simple way to show the heat lost in even a simple collision. When you slam the spheres on either side of the paper a small hole is burned into the paper. When I demonstrate this to students I have a volunteer hold a piece of paper straight up vertically and slam the spheres on either side of them several times. It takes students a moment to realize that holes have been made in the paper and then they notice the smell. Only a few holes in the paper is enough to fill the surrounding area with the smell of burning paper. I talk about how hot the paper must have gotten to literally burn at the contact point and that the thermal energy comes from conserving the energy from the initial collision. Dean Baird uses this as an exhibit in his student run Exploratorio, called "Fire Clap."

Even though it seems obvious to me that the burned hole is an example of thermal energy I wanted to show students the collision as viewed through a thermal imaging camera. I tried looking online but I could not finding any such video. I don't own a FLIR camera (yet) but the Exploratorium Museum of San Francisco does! I was there today to help with a Teacher Institute workshop and headed down to the FLIR exhibit with a set of the colliding spheres. Some other teachers and I got some videos:

Our first attempt showed that there was in fact a bit of heat around where the holes were made. You can see the color change around the edge of the hole over time:

While rearranging for another take we noticed that our hands left residual heat lines on the paper so we drew on the paper that way for awhile. Physics teachers are easily distracted by cool stuff. We found that my fingers didn't work well and when everyone held their hands up we saw why. My fingertips showed up black (cold) while everyone else's were white, the same color as the rest of their hands, apparently I have cold hands.

In this video you can see the experiment take place on the right and the projected FLIR video is on the left. Again the holes produced have a bright white that eventually fades to the color of the paper.

At this point we remembered that we were making holes and therefore we could "see" the heat signatures of things behind the holes. We oriented the paper so that a dark color was behind it so that we did not have contrast behind it. A well timed museum visitor passed behind and we can see that the color changes:

Another experiment commonly done with the colliding spheres is to slam them on either side of a piece of foil. This Educational Innovations post explains both aspects of the experiment. When we tried the foil we found that there was no heat seen through the FLIR camera. We could not heat the foil like we did the paper and see the residual lines from our hands.

According to Zeke Kossover of the Exploratorium it is due to the low emissivity of the foil. This FLIR article explains it a bit but basically the foil is so good at reflecting radiation (visible light and heat) that the FLIR camera does not accurately show its temperature. In the picture above the black rectangle on the right and the two spheres in my hand appear black which translates "cold" through the FLIR camera. They are in fact both room temperature or warmer as they have been held for a moment.

So now I have video to show my students that confirms, in more ways than one that thermal energy is produced when the two spheres are slammed together. There's nothing quite as cool as seeing the heat ... *bad dum ching*.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a couple of larger iron spheres (from a cement foundry) that I use for this demo. They're about 4" in diameter. I usually show this demo with a student sitting at the front of the class, then after the class reaction (generally impressed, as you would be), I go around the class, giving everyone a souvenir hole in their notes.

One year, as I was going around the class, one of the students shifted the angle of their paper slightly and I shifted the balls accordingly. Unfortunately, I caught the tip of my pinky between the balls because of the new angle, and suffered a rather nasty crush injury. I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say, I'm much more careful when I'm pounding these things together... Learn from my mistake and spare yourself a trip to the emergency room!