What is latent heat? (with photos)

Latent heat is the name given to the energy that is lost or gained by a substance when it changes state, for example, from a gas to a liquid. It is measured as an amount of energy, joules, rather than temperature.

Latent heat is visible in weather, as when water molecules in the air rise high enough, they condense into a liquid that has less energy.

Most substances can exist in three states: gas, liquid, and solid, although there is an additional state called plasma. The main difference between a substance in each state is how fast its molecules move. Like a liquid, molecules move at a speed where they can repeatedly come together, separate, and then come together again. When they move slowly, they stick together, forming a solid. When they move quickly, they break apart, forming a gas.

Steam, often used to heat buildings using steam boilers, is a type of latent heat.

For example, we often think of water as a liquid. However, it can also be a solid (ice) or a gas (steam). But as you can see when you boil water in a kettle or when the surface of a lake freezes, not all molecules in a substance change state at the same time.

When a molecule changes state, it has a different amount of energy. However, the laws of physics state that energy cannot just disappear. Therefore, when the molecule moves more slowly, excess energy is released to the environment as latent heat. When the molecule moves faster, it has absorbed extra energy by taking latent heat from the environment.

You can feel the effects of latent heat on a hot day when sweat evaporates from your skin and you feel cooler. This is because the liquid molecules that evaporate will need more energy when they become water vapor. This thermal energy is removed from the skin, reducing its temperature.

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The effects of latent heat are also visible in the weather. When water molecules in the air rise high enough, they get cooler and condense into a liquid that has less energy. The “spare” energy becomes latent heat and makes the surrounding air warmer. This leads to wind, and when the process happens quickly, it can even cause a storm.

Latent heat also provides energy for hurricanes and cyclones, which start over warm oceans, where there is a large supply of warm, moist air that can rise and then condense. The warmer the air, the more energy results from its cooling and condensation, which is why hurricanes are more likely and more powerful in the warmer seasons.

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