The Second Law of Thermodynamics
A living cell’s primary tasks of obtaining, transforming, and using energy to do work may seem simple. However, the second law of thermodynamics explains why these tasks are harder than they appear. None of the energy transfers that we have discussed, along with all energy transfers and transformations in the universe, is completely efficient. In every energy transfer, some amount of energy is lost in a form that is unusable. In most cases, this form is heat energy. Thermodynamically, scientists define heat energy as energy that transfers from one system to another that is not doing work. For example, when an airplane flies through the air, it loses some of its energy as heat energy due to friction with the surrounding air. This friction actually heats the air by temporarily increasing air molecule speed. Likewise, some energy is lost as heat energy during cellular metabolic reactions. This is good for warm-blooded creatures like us, because heat energy helps to maintain our body temperature. Strictly speaking, no energy transfer is completely efficient, because some energy is lost in an unusable form.
An important concept in physical systems is that of order and disorder (or randomness). The more energy that a system loses to its surroundings, the less ordered and more random the system. Scientists refer to the measure of randomness or disorder within a system as entropy. High entropy means high disorder and low energy (Figure). To better understand entropy, think of a student’s bedroom. If no energy or work were put into it, the room would quickly become messy. It would exist in a very disordered state, one of high entropy. Energy must be put into the system, in the form of the student doing work and putting everything away, in order to bring the room back to a state of cleanliness and order. This state is one of low entropy. Similarly, a car or house must be constantly maintained with work in order to keep it in an ordered state. Left alone, a house's or car's entropy gradually increases through rust and degradation. Molecules and chemical reactions have varying amounts of entropy as well. For example, as chemical reactions reach a state of equilibrium, entropy increases, and as molecules at a high concentration in one place diffuse and spread out, entropy also increases.
Transfer of Energy and the Resulting EntropySet up a simple experiment to understand how energy transfers and how a change in entropy results.
- Take a block of ice. This is water in solid form, so it has a high structural order. This means that the molecules cannot move very much and are in a fixed position. The ice's temperature is 0°C. As a result, the system's entropy is low.
- Allow the ice to melt at room temperature. What is the state of molecules in the liquid water now? How did the energy transfer take place? Is the system's entropy higher or lower? Why?
- Heat the water to its boiling point. What happens to the system's entropy when the water is heated?
Think of all physical systems of in this way: Living things are highly ordered, requiring constant energy input to maintain themselves in a state of low entropy. As living systems take in energy-storing molecules and transform them through chemical reactions, they lose some amount of usable energy in the process, because no reaction is completely efficient. They also produce waste and by-products that are not useful energy sources. This process increases the entropy of the system’s surroundings. Since all energy transfers result in losing some usable energy, the second law of thermodynamics states that every energy transfer or transformation increases the universe's entropy. Even though living things are highly ordered and maintain a state of low entropy, the universe's entropy in total is constantly increasing due to losing usable energy with each energy transfer that occurs. Essentially, living things are in a continuous uphill battle against this constant increase in universal entropy.