Inadequacy of the First law of thermodynamics and the need for another law:

Image describing loss of heat from the hot cup in cooler environment.

It is common experience that a cup of hot coffee left in a cooler room eventually cools off. This process satisfies the first law of thermodynamics since the amount of energy lost by the coffee is equal to the amount gained by the surrounding air.

Image depicting hyptothetical situation in which a hot cup of coffee absorbs heat in cooler environment

Now let us consider the reverse process—the hot coffee getting even hotter in a cooler room as a result of heat transfer from the room air. We all know that this process never takes place. Yet, doing so would not violate the first law as long as the amount of energy lost by the air is equal to the amount gained by the coffee.

As another familiar example, consider the heating of a room by the passage of electric current through a resistor. Again, the first law dictates that the amount of electric energy supplied to the resistance wires be equal to the amount of energy transferred to the room air as heat. Now let us attempt to reverse this process. It will come as no surprise that transferring some heat to the wires does not cause an equivalent amount of electric energy to be generated in the wires.

It is clear from these arguments that processes proceed in a certain direction and not in the reverse direction. The first law places no restriction on the direction of a process, but satisfying the first law does not ensure that the process can actually occur. This inadequacy of the first law to identify whether a process can take place is remedied by introducing another general principle, the second law of thermodynamics.

A process cannot occur unless it satisfies both the first and the second laws of thermodynamics.

So, What is this Second Law of Thermodynamics?

Stay tuned, we will discuss that in the next post.

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