18.4: Gas Thermometers and the Kelvin Scale
The definition of temperature in terms of molecular motion suggests that there should be a lowest possible temperature, where the average kinetic energy of molecules is zero (or the minimum allowed by quantum mechanics). Experiments confirm the existence of such a temperature, called absolute zero. An absolute temperature scale is one whose zero point is absolute zero. Such scales are convenient in science because several physical quantities, such as the volume of an ideal gas, are directly related to absolute temperature.
The Kelvin scale is the absolute temperature scale that is commonly used in science.
The Kelvin scale is part of the SI system of units, so its actual definition is more complicated than the one given above. First, it is not defined in terms of the freezing and boiling points of water, but in terms of the triple point. The triple point is the unique combination of temperature and pressure at which ice, liquid water, and water vapor can coexist stably. The triple-point temperature is defined as 273.16 K. This definition has the advantage that although the freezing temperature and boiling temperature of water depend on pressure, there is only one triple-point temperature.
Even with well-defined points on the scale, different thermometers give somewhat different results for other temperatures. Therefore, a standard thermometer is required. Metrologists have chosen the constant-volume gas thermometer for this purpose. A vessel of constant volume filled with gas is subjected to temperature changes, and the measured temperature is proportional to the change in pressure. The results depend somewhat on the choice of gas, but the less dense the gas in the bulb, the better the results for different gases agree. If the results are extrapolated to zero density, the results agree quite well, with zero pressure corresponding to a temperature of absolute zero. Constant-volume gas thermometers are big and come to equilibrium slowly, so they are used mostly as standards to calibrate other thermometers.