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Vapor Pressure Curves

Describes effect of atmospheric pressure on boiling point and intermolecular forces

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Vapor Pressure Curves

Keeping the lid on a pot can help the water to boil faster

Credit: Image copyright AdamEdwards, 2014
Source: http://www.shutterstock.com
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

What is the fastest way to boil water?

One of the first lessons in cooking is how to boil water. Yes, it sounds simple, but there are a couple of hints that speed things up. One hint is to put a lid on the pot. The picture above has water boiling uncovered with the steam escaping to the atmosphere. If the lid is on the pot, less water will be boiled off and the water will boil faster. The buildup of pressure inside the pot helps speed up the boiling process.

Vapor Pressure Curves 

The boiling points of various liquids can be illustrated in a vapor pressure curve (Figure below). A vapor pressure curve is a graph of vapor pressure as a function of temperature. To find the normal boiling point of a liquid, a horizontal line is drawn from the left at a pressure equal to standard pressure. At whatever temperature that line intersects the vapor pressure curve of a liquid is the boiling point of that liquid.

Vapor pressure curves of various substances

Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Christopher Auyeung
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Vapor pressure curves.[Figure2]

The boiling points of liquid also correlate to the strength of the intermolecular forces. Recall that diethyl ether has weak dispersion forces, which meant that the liquid has a high vapor pressure. The weak forces also mean that it does not require a large an input of energy to make diethyl ether boil and so it has a relatively low normal boiling point of 34.6°C. Water, with its much stronger hydrogen bonding, has a low vapor pressure and a higher normal boiling point of 100°C.

As stated earlier, boiling points are affected by external pressure. At higher altitudes, the atmospheric pressure is lower. With less pressure pushing down on the surface of the liquid, it boils at a lower temperature. This can also be seen from the vapor pressure curves. If one draws a horizontal line at a lower vapor pressure, it intersects each curve at a lower temperature. The boiling point of water is 100°C at sea level, where the atmospheric pressure is standard. In Denver, Colorado at 1600 m above sea level, the atmospheric pressure is about 640 mmHg and water boils at about 95°C. On the summit of Mt. Everest the atmospheric pressure is about 255 mmHg and water boils at only 70°C. On the other hand, water boils at greater than 100°C if the external pressure is higher than standard. Pressure cookers do not allow the vapor to escape and the vapor pressure increases. Since water now boils at a temperature above 100°C, the food cooks more quickly.

A pressure cooker increases the boiling point of water, which allows for faster cooking

Credit: Dinner Series
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dinnerseries/8556666861/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Pressure cooker.[Figure3]

The effect of decreased air pressure can be demonstrated by placing a beaker of water in a vacuum chamber. At a low enough pressure, about 20 mmHg, water will boil at room temperature.


  • A vapor pressure curve is a graph of vapor pressure as a function of temperature.
  • Boiling points are affected by external pressure.


  1. What does a vapor pressure curve show?
  2. Why does diethyl ether have a low boiling point?
  3. What intermolecular forces hold water molecules together?
  4. Why does water boil at a lower temperature when at a high altitude?

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Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What does a vacuum pump do?
  2. What is the role of the O-ring?
  3. What happens when the vacuum pump is turned on?
  4. What happened when the vacuum pump was turned on?
  5. What was the temperature of this boiling water?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Image copyright AdamEdwards, 2014; Source: http://www.shutterstock.com; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Christopher Auyeung; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: Dinner Series; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dinnerseries/8556666861/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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