Phase (matter)

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In the physical sciences, a phase is a region of space (a thermodynamic system), throughout which all physical properties of a material are essentially uniform.[1] Examples of physical properties include density, index of refraction, and chemical composition. A simple description is that a phase is a region of material that is chemically uniform, physically distinct, and (often) mechanically separable. In a system consisting of ice and water in a glass jar, the ice cubes are one phase, the water is a second phase, and the humid air over the water is a third phase. The glass of the jar is another separate phase.

The term phase is sometimes used as a synonym for state of matter. Also, the term phase is sometimes used to refer to a set of equilibrium states demarcated in terms of state variables such as pressure and temperature by a phase boundary on a phase diagram. Because phase boundaries relate to changes in the organization of matter, such as a change from liquid to solid or a more subtle change from one crystal structure to another, this latter usage is similar to the use of "phase" as a synonym for state of matter. However, the state of matter and phase diagram usages are not commensurate with the formal definition given above and the intended meaning must be determined in part from the context in which the term is used.


Types of phases

Distinct phases may be described as different states of matter such as gas, liquid, solid, plasma or Bose–Einstein condensate. Distinct phases may also exist within a given state of matter. As shown in the diagram for iron alloys, several phases exist for both the solid and liquid states. Phases may also be differentiated based on solubility as in polar (hydrophilic) or non-polar (hydrophobic). A mixture of water (a polar liquid) and oil (a non-polar liquid) will spontaneously separate into two phases. Water has a very low solubility (is insoluble) in oil, and oil has a low solubility in water. Solubility is the maximum amount of a solute that can dissolve in a solvent before the solute ceases to dissolve and remains in a separate phase. A mixture can separate into more than two liquid phases and the concept of phase separation extends to solids, i.e. solids can form solid solutions or crystallize into distinct crystal phases. Metal pairs that are mutually soluble can form alloys, whereas metal pair that are mutually insoluble cannot.

As many as eight immiscible liquid phases have been observed.[2] Mutually immiscible liquid phases are formed from water (aqueous phase), hydrophobic organic solvents, perfluorocarbons (fluorous phase), silicones, several different metals, and also from molten phosphorus. Not all organic solvents are completely miscible, e.g. a mixture of ethylene glycol and toluene may separate into two distinct organic phases.[3]

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