How Can Geologists Study Thermodynamics?

Why does granite exist, and where did it form? Why does limestone look different than marble? Geologists studying petrology search for answers to questions like these. Using the principles of chemical thermodynamics and a wide range of equipment, they seek to understand the formation of the earth. Continue reading for more information about what thermodynamics is and how you can study thermodynamics as a geologist. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Definition of Thermodynamics

According to Webster's New World Dictionary, thermodynamics comes from words meaning heat and the forces of motion. Hence, thermodynamics is the study of the conversion of heat into other forms of energy. Four laws govern thermodynamics.

The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics says that if a equals b and c equals b, then a equals c, all in terms of temperature equilibrium. An example of this is pouring two glasses of ice water on a hot summer day. After a few hours, the ice will have melted, and the water will feel the same temperature as the air around it. Since the water in each glass is in thermal equilibrium with the surrounding air, then the glasses of water are also in equilibrium with each other.

According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, you cannot create or destroy energy. For example, if you burn a piece of wood, you change the potential chemical energy of the wood into thermal (heat) energy, and the wood transforms from a log into smoke and ashes. You have altered the wood but not destroyed it.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics (or Law of Increased Entropy) states that the amount of energy doesn't stay the same in a transfer of energy or energy conversion. For example, it takes a certain amount of energy to charge a battery. But the amount of energy that the charged battery can produce (to power a flashlight, for example) is less than the amount of energy needed to charge it in the first place.

The Third Law of Thermodynamics states that since heat produces motion and heat does not exist at absolute zero, at absolute zero an object has neither potential energy nor molecular disorder. Scientists use this rule to plot the proportional relationship between molecular disorder and heat.

Important Facts About Studying Thermodynamics

Online Availability Courses are offered via open courseware; may also be included in online degree programs
Degree Fields Physics, Engineering, Geoscience
Possible Careers Geoscientist, Geological and Petroleum Technician, Mechanical Engineer

Thermodynamics in Geology

In geology, thermodynamics relates to the stability of rocks and minerals under varying heats and pressures. Geologists study these principles, which have applications to a number of geology specialties. Some examples are discussed below.


By using chemical thermodynamic equations when studying various substances, you can discover how and where different rocks formed. This branch of geology is called petrology. In petrology, you use principles of chemistry, computer programs and a number of different machines to study thermodynamics. By controlling factors like the presence of oxygen, temperature, pressure and time, you can discover the dynamics of formation for a diverse range of rocks. The texture of the stone and the presence of specific chemicals are both keys to the pressure and the temperature that the rock experienced at metamorphosis.

Studying the Earth's Core

Another application of thermodynamics in geology is the study of the earth's core. Experiments with the reaction of iron under different extreme pressures give clues about the state at the center of our planet. Since no one can actually visit the core of the earth, geologists conduct tests to understand how the earth's core functions. For example, you could subject iron to extreme pressure, observing and recording the results. Using high-powered accelerators, you shoot iron bullets into iron targets, while a computer records the change in pressure and volume. Using these techniques, you can approximate conditions at the core, including temperature and solidity.

Becoming a Geologist

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, geologists need a minimum of a bachelor's degree to be eligible for employment. If you want to work as a researcher or teach at the college level, you'll likely need to earn a Ph.D. Geology degree program, which includes base studies in physical sciences, mathematics and computer science along with subject-specific coursework in structural geology, mineralogy and petrology. Fieldwork and laboratory work are also important parts of the curriculum, as well as technical training in areas like computer modeling and digital mapping.

Courses to Take to Study Thermodynamics

If you would like to integrate a study of thermodynamics into your geology major, you can take the following classes:

  • Thermodynamics
  • Soil chemistry
  • Geochemistry
  • Geophysics
  • Hydrology

Soil chemistry courses teach you about analyzing soil, with the principles of mineralogy, thermodynamics and chemistry. Geochemistry is the study of rock composition and formation, covering subjects such as crystalline formation and bonding and examination of actual rocks. Geophysics classes use the principles of plate tectonics and thermodynamics to understand earthquakes. In hydrology, you will learn how physics and thermodynamics affect water flow and circulation.

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