Converting states of matter from one form into another requires the involvement of heat energy. For example, converting water at 100°C into steam at 100°C requires the input of 2260 kJ per kg of water, whereas to convert 1 kg of ice at 0°C into water at 0°C involves the input of 334 kJ.

This ‘hidden heat’ (so called because, as the change occurs, there is no change in temperature) is referred to as ‘latent heat

Note that the change liquid → gas requires far more energy than the change solid → liquid, because the liquid particles have to be given sufficient energy to completely break free from one another to get into the gaseous state. In the change solid → liquid, the particles are freed from fixed positions into a more mobile arrangement, allowing for movement in between and over one another.

Latent heat of vaporisation

The heat energy needed to convert a liquid at its boiling point to a gas at the same temperature is referred to as latent heat of vaporisation

The reverse process – latent heat of condensation – results in an expulsion of heat energy from the system.

The amount of latent heat of vaporisation for any given liquid is dependent on two main factors:

  • The molecular/atomic structure of the liquid.
  • The mass of the liquid undergoing the change.

Latent heat of vaporisation values


Latent heat of vaporisation

Boiling point

















Water has a very high value. This is because attractive forces between the water molecules in the liquid state, known as hydrogen bonds, need to be overcome to release the molecules into the gaseous state.

Making use of latent heat

The liquid to gas/gas to liquid cycle has been extensively studied from the scientific energy in/energy out perspective. The technological outcome of this has been the development of highly efficient heating and cooling systems both in the industrial and household settings.

Fridge and freezer design has the evaporator component on the inside of the cabinet with the condenser component on the outside. This arrangement allows the inside cabinet area to be cooled, with heat from the condenser escaping to the surrounding air on the outside.

Heat pumps operate in the same way but the design is such that the unit can either heat or cool room air depending on the setting.

The working fluid used for most household fridges, freezers and heat pumps nowadays is tetrafluoroethane. It has replaced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) because of the harm these chemicals were doing to the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere

Tetrafluoroethane has a relatively low latent heat of vaporisation and low boiling point, but its chemical inertness and low toxicity make it an ideal working fluid. In the industrial setting, ammonia and propane are often used as the working fluids.

Nature of science

The main purpose of science is to explain the natural world, whereas the purpose of technology is to intervene in the world to produce something useful. These two purposes often come together in a supportive and constructive way. The modern heat pump serves as an excellent example of how the basic scientific principles of thermodynamics have underpinned the ever-improving technological design of such a device.

Useful links

Ammonia and propane are excellent working fluids, but the hazardous nature of these chemicals restricts them to the more controlled industrial setting usage. This article describes a cool store explosion in Hamilton in April 2008 that killed one fireman and injured seven others.

    Published 29 April 2014