Specific Heat; “coffee cup” calorimetry
In this exercise, you will use “coffee cup” calorimetry to measure the heat flow between a
cool liquid (water in Parts 2 and 3, oil in Part 4) and hot water when they are mixed. In Part 2 and
3, you will verify that the amount of heat lost by the hot water is equal to the amount of heat gained
by the cool water, i.e. you will verify the First Law of Thermodynamics/Conservation of Energy. In
Part 4, you will determine the specific heat of the oil.
Heat is a form of energy that can flow into or out of materials and cause them to either
change their temperature or change their state or phase from a solid to a liquid or to a gas. In the SI
system, heat is measured in units of Joules like all forms of energy. Another non-SI unit of heat still
in common usage is the calorie. The Laws of Thermodynamics describe how and why heat flows
from place to place.
The specific heat capacity (or “specific heat” for short) of a material expresses how much
its temperature changes when it is heated or cooled. The higher a material’s specific heat, the more
heat it takes to generate the same temperature change. Put another way, a material with a higher
specific heat changes temperature less with the same amount of heating or cooling. If a material
with a total mass m and a specific heat c absorbs a total amount of heat Q, its temperature will
change by T according to the following formula:
In this experiment, we will express heat in units of Joules, mass in units of grams, and temperature
changes in units of degrees Centigrade (oC). Consequently, specific heat is expressed in units of
“Joules per gram per degree Centigrade” or J/goC.
The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics defines temperature as the property that governs
whether two bodies will exchange heat when they are in thermal contact, i.e. not isolated from one
another by distance or by an insulating material like styrofoam. The Zeroth Law says that objects
at different temperatures will exchange heat. When they reach the same temperature, heat exchange
stops and they are said to be in thermal equilibrium. The Second Law of Thermodynamics
states that heat naturally flows from higher temperatures to lower temperatures. As a result, a hotter
object cools and a cooler objects warms. Temperature change and/or phase change will continue
until thermal equilibrium is achieved. When two bodies exchange heat, the First Law of
Thermodynamics (otherwise known as the Law of Conservation of Energy) states that the amount
of heat lost by the hotter object must be equal to the amount of heat gained by the colder object.
An experimental technique called calorimetery uses the principles of thermodynamics to
determine heat flow in physical processes. A simple “coffee cup” calorimeter can be constructed
using a Styrofoam cup and a thermometer. The Styrofoam is a good insulator that prevents heat
flow between the interior of the cup and the surrounding air; heat energy stays inside the
calorimeter. The calorimeter is filled with water. Another object at a different temperature is
dropped into the water. The water in the calorimeter cup and the object exchange heat until they are
at the same temperature. The specific heat of water is a well-known quantity, 4.18 J/goC. By
measuring the temperature change of the water with a thermometer, the amount of heat the object
exchanged with the water can be determined from eq. (1). By the First Law of Thermodynamics eq.
(2), any heat gained/lost by the water must have come from/gone into the object that was dropped
into the water. From the object’s mass and temperature change, eq. (1) can be used again to
determine its specific heat as well.
Three Styrofoam coffee cups that can hold at least one cup of fluid, a measuring cup,
adhesive tape, some popsicle sticks or coins, some corrugated cardboard or a sheet of Styrofoam
(you don’t mind cutting up), a cooking or meat thermometer with a temperature range between
F/40oC and 200o
F/95oC (a digital thermometer seems to work best), an indoor thermometer, a
stove or microwave oven, vegetable oil, and tap water.
If you don’t already have a cooking thermometer, purchase an inexpensive cooking/meat
thermometer from the grocery store or borrow one from a friend/family/neighbor. A meat
thermometer works very well for this experiment, since it has a needle-like probe tip. If your
indoor thermometer can’t be moved, it is best to do the experiment in the same room it is mounted
if you can.
Part 1: Constructing the Coffee-Cup Calorimeter and Preliminary Setup
- Take one of the Styrofoam cups and tape either the coins or popsicles sticks to the sides. If you
are using popsicle sticks, break them into 1 inch lengths first. Place this cup into a second cup.
The coins/sticks act as spacers and keep a thin layer of air between the two cups. An unmoving
layer of “dead” air is a very good insulator; this is why double-paned windows are so energy
efficient. Finish off by wrapping a strip of adhesive tape around the space between the top of
the two cups, to seal off the air between them. Between the air layer and the Styrofoam, your
calorimeter should be well-insulated.
- Now, take the corrugated cardboard/Styrofoam sheet and cut out a circular piece for a lid. If
you use cardboard you should use corrugated cardboard; thin cardboard will not work nearly as
well as an insulating lid. Cut the lid about an inch wider in diameter than the top of the coffee
cup. You will need to either punch or cut a hole into the center of the lid to insert your
thermometer. Keep the hole as small as possible; a tight hole will both improve insulation and
help hold your thermometer firm. You can keep the thermometer in the lid throughout the
experiment. If you use a glass cooking thermometer, be careful when inserting it into the lid
and transferring it.
- Measure out 1/3rd of a cup (79 mL) of water into the third Styrofoam cup. Using a small knife,
pencil, pen, etc., mark the top of the water level on the inside of the cup. Pour out the water.
Repeat this process with a 1/4th of a cup (59 mL) of water. You will be using this cup to
measure out portions of hot water to pour into the room temperature water (or oil) inside the
calorimeter. By pre-marking the water levels, you can do this more speedily, which will
minimize heat loss from the hot water.
- Set a large container of tap water and the oil in whichever room you plan to perform the
experiment. Let them sit out in the open for at least a couple of hours. If you can, let them sit
out overnight. This is to ensure that both are at “room temperature”. Throughout the
experiment, we will be referring to the room temperature water as the “cool” water.
- Make sure that you read the following instructions completely before you perform the
experiment. At various stages, either speed or patience will be very important. You will need
to be prepared before you start each part if you want good data.
- Once you are ready to begin your experiment, record the temperature in the room where you
kept the water and oil.
Part 2: Verifying the First Law (equal amounts of hot and cool water)
- Measure out 1/3rd of a cup (79 mL) of cool water into your calorimeter. Be as precise about this
measurement as you can.
- Now you will need some hot water. You can boil water in the measuring cup with your
microwave (assuming it is microwave safe) or put a big pot of water on the stovetop and boil it.
If you use the stovetop, keep the water at a slow rolling boil while performing the experiment.
If you use the microwave, stop the microwave as soon as you can see a strong boil begin in the
- Transfer enough of your boiled water into the third Styrofoam cup up to exactly the 1/3 cup/79
mL mark. If you have to, use a spoon to remove excess until you’re lined up perfectly with your
previous mark. Be careful not to burn yourself, but don’t take too long either.
Warning: Water in a microwave can occasionally “superheat”, meaning that it remains liquid
even though it is actually hotter than its normal boiling point temperature. Superheated water
can look placid, but once you pour it or put a spoon in it, etc. it explosively boils and sprays
everywhere. This is a very very rare occurrence, but something anyone who uses a microwave
regularly to boil water should be aware of. If you’re heating water and it seems to be taking
way too long to boil, it may be superheating. Just let it cool down and try again.
- Put the lid over the cup of hot water. Insert the thermometer into the lid. The tip of the
thermometer needs to be in the water. Wait for the temperature reading on the thermometer to
stabilize; the temperature on the thermometer shouldn’t be changing more than 1oC in 30
second. Record the temperature of the hot water. A space is provided for both o
F and oC
measurements. If you measure in o
F, you will convert to oC later.
- Remove the thermometer from the lid and swish the end of the thermometer in your original
supply of cool water or under a flow of cold water from your sink for a few seconds. You are
trying to quickly drop its reading down near that of the cool water supply. Don’t take too long
with this; you don’t want your hot water to cool off too much.
- Now, quickly remove the lid from the hot water’s cup and pour the hot water into the
calorimeter cup. Quickly place the lid on the calorimeter cup and reinsert the thermometer in its
hole. Swish the cup around to mix the two waters. The thermometer reading should rise
quickly at first, stabilize, and then start slowly dropping (as the contents of the calorimeter begin
losing heat through the sides and top of the cup into the surrounding). Determine the highest
temperature reading that the thermometer reaches before it starts dropping again. Record this
temperature in your Data Sheet as the equilibrium temperature between the hot and cool water.
- Pour out the contents of the calorimeter.
You now have the data you need to perform the calculations for this part of the exercise. Steps 14-
20 outline how to perform those calculations. If you prefer, you may save the calculations for later
and collect the data for the other two parts of the lab instead.
- Convert the initial and equilibrium temperature readings from degrees Fahrenheit to degrees
Celsius. If you recorded in Celsius originally, convert to Fahrenheit instead. Note: For all
subsequent calculations, you will be using the Celsius temperatures only.
- Determine the mass of both the hot water mh and the cool water mc you poured into the
calorimeter. The density of water is close to 1 gram per milliliter, so the volume of water in
milliliters equals its mass in grams.
- Determine how much the temperature of the cool water changed Tc, from its initial temperature
(“room” temperature) before you put it in the calorimeter to its final equilibrium temperature
after it was mixed with hot water.
- Determine the temperature change of the hot water |Th| from your initial measurement of its
temperature just before you poured it into the calorimeter and its final equilibrium temperature
after mixing with the cool water. Although the temperature of the hot water dropped (and
therefore Th is properly a negative number), record this change in temperature as a positive
number (we will ignore minus signs for this).
- Using eq. (1), calculate the heat Qc that was absorbed by the cool water in the calorimeter.
Show your work for this calculation.
- Using eq. (1), calculate the heat |Qh| that was lost by the hot water. Show your work for this
- Calculate the % difference between the heat lost and the heat gained. Assuming that the
calorimeter is well-insulated and the First Law of Thermodynamics is correct, these should be
very similar and your % diff should be close to zero.
Note: If you find that your % diff is greater than 20%, you should probably either recheck
your calculations or redo the experiment. If the large % difference persists, your calorimeter
may not be well-insulated enough or you may be taking too much time transferring the hot
water into the calorimeter cup after you have finished measuring its temperature.
Even though your calorimeter should be well-insulated, it is inevitable that some of the heat
that flowed out of the hot water was lost to the outside air instead of going into the cool water.
Thus, the heat gained by the cool water should always be a little less than the heat lost by the hot
water. If you find after calculation that your cool water gained more heat than the hot water
lost, it is also strongly advised that you redo the experiment.
Part 3: Verifying the First Law (unequal amounts of hot and cool water)
- Repeat the Steps 7-19, but this time use ½ a cup (118 mL) of cool water in the calorimeter cup
and 1/4th of a cup (59 mL) of hot water.
Part 4: Determining the Specific Heat of Oil
- Repeat Steps 7-12, this time using 1/3 of a cup of vegetable oil (olive, canola, peanut, etc.) for
your cool liquid in the calorimeter and 1/3 of a cup of hot water. If you can safely do so, you
should try to stir the calorimeter contents after pouring them together. Remember, oil and water
don’t naturally mix. Stirring should help the system reach equilibrium with much greater
- Find the specific heat of the oil you used online. A Google search should find it without too
much trouble. Be specific about what kind of oil you used: vegetable oil, canola oil, olive oil,
peanut oil, etc. Different oils have different specific heats.
Note: Make sure that you find the specific heat of your oil in units of Joules per gram degree
Celsius to be consistent with the units of the other quantities in this lab. Check to see which
units the website is using before writing your value down.
If the specific heat you find is listed in units of Joules per gram degree Kelvin, that is fine.
A temperature change expressed in degrees Centigrade is the same as the temperature change
expressed in degree Kelvin.
Another unit commonly used to measure heat is the calorie; the websites you find may well
give specific heats in units of calories/goC. If the website is using calories instead of Joules,
you can convert from calories to Joules using the following conversion factor:
1 calorie = 4.184 Joules.
Record which particular type of oil you used and its actual specific heat coil,act (J/goC) in the
- Find the “density” doil of the oil that you used online and record. Density is defined as the ratio
of a material’s mass versus its volume (read Chapter 9, p 174 for more information). The
density you record needs to be in units of grams per milliliter.
- Multiply the density of the oil (in grams per milliliter) by the milliliters of oil used to determine
the mass of the oil, in grams.
- Determine the temperature change of the hot water. Determine the temperature change of the
- Assume that all the heat lost by the hot water was gained by the oil. Using eq. (1) and the data
you’ve gathered, find the “experimental” value of specific heat coil,exp for the oil. You will need
to rearrange eq. (1) to solve for coil,exp. Note that the specific heat of oil will be determined by
the mass, heat absorbed, and temperature change of the oil.
- Calculate the % error between the oil’s actual specific heat, which you found online in Step 23,
and the specific heat you determined experimentally in Step 27.
Answer the questions in Part 5.