Open and Closed Systems

Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between an open and a closed system

Thermodynamics refers to the study of energy and energy transfer involving physical matter. The matter and its environment relevant to a particular case of energy transfer are classified as a system, and everything outside of that system is called the surroundings. For instance, when heating a pot of water on the stove, the system includes the stove, the pot, and the water. Energy is transferred within the system (between the stove, pot, and water). There are two types of systems: open and closed. An open system is one in which energy can be transferred between the system and its surroundings. The stovetop system is open because heat can be lost into the air. A closed system is one that cannot transfer energy to its surroundings.

Biological organisms are open systems. Energy is exchanged between them and their surroundings, as they consume energy-storing molecules and release energy to the environment by doing work. Like all things in the physical world, energy is subject to the laws of physics. The laws of thermodynamics govern the transfer of energy in and among all systems in the universe.

In studying energy, scientists use the term “system” to refer to the matter and its environment involved in energy transfers. Everything outside of the system is called the surroundings. Single cells are biological systems. Systems can be thought of as having a certain amount of order. It takes energy to make a system more ordered. The more ordered a system is, the lower its entropy. Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system. As a system becomes more disordered, the lower its energy and the higher its entropy become.

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