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Measuring the enthalpy of combustion of Ethanol


The aim of the experiment is to measure the enthalpy of combustion of ethanol.


The balanced equation for the combustion of ethanol is

C2 H 6O(l ) + 3O2(g ) ® 2CO 2(g ) + 3H 2O( l )

The enthalpy of combustion of ethanol can be found using three different methods:

- According to the IB Chemistry Data Booklet, the enthalpy of combustion of ethanol

under standard conditions is -1371 KJ mol-1.

- Bond enthalpies i.e. Bonds broken – Bonds formed

[ 4(412 ) + 348 + 360 + 463 + 3(496 )] - [ 4(743 ) + 6(463 )]

= 4307 - 5750
= - 1443 Kj mol

- Enthalpy of formation i.e.

∆H Products - DH Reactants
= 2 ´ DH CO 2 + 3 ´ DH H 2O - DH C2 H 6O
= 2 ´ (- 394 ) + 3 ´ (- 286 ) - (- 278 )
= - 1368 Kj mol

Naturally, the design of the experiment cannot produce a result anywhere close to the actual
value of the enthalpy of combustion because much heat will be lost to the surroundings and to
the apparatus. Nevertheless, we hope to find a result within 50% of the expected value.

Also, since metal is a better heat conductor than glass, we expect the calculated enthalpy of
combustion of ethanol to be higher in experiment 2 (metallic beaker) than in experiment 1
(glass beaker).

The apparatus consisted of a spirit burner containing ethanol, a glass and a metallic beaker,
and a thermometer. A lid and a shielding screen were also used as insulators.


Water beaker

Spirit Burner

The mass of ethanol in the spirit burner and the temperature of water were measured before
and after the experiment. In theory, the heat provided by the combustion of the ethanol should
be transferred to the water and cause the temperature rise. The quantity of heat transferred to
the water is found by using the specific heat capacity formula Q = mcDT . The experiment
was carried out twice, once using the glass water beaker and then using the metallic water

It is important to know that the liquid ethanol was first poured into a smaller glass beaker so
as to measure its mass. This smaller glass beaker is called “Mass Beaker” in the Raw Data
section of the report. The ethanol was then transferred to the spirit burner for combustion. At
the end of the experiment, the leftover ethanol in the spirit burner was transferred back to the
“mass Beaker” to measure its final weight.
Raw data

The raw data from the experiment is illustrated in the tables bellow. Note that number 1 refers
to the first experiment using the glass water beaker and number 2 refers to the second
experiment using the metallic beaker. The “Mass Beaker” is the small beaker in which
ethanol was transferred in order to measure its mass.

Mass Mass
Beaker 1 Beaker 2 Water Water
±0.001g ±0.001g Beaker 1 Beaker 2
Temp Initial
Empty initial 51.505 51.581 ±0.5¡ 8 11
Filled 88.510 99.289 Temp Final
Empty after ±0.5¡ 37 40
transfer 51.622 51.644
FIlled at end
exp. 74.424 88.274

Additional information:
- The glass water beaker contained 200ml
- The metal water beaker contained 100ml

Processed Data

In order to calculate the enthalpy of combustion of ethanol, we need to know how much
ethanol was combusted, and what change in temperature this has caused.
- The mass of ethanol poured into the spirit burner in exp.1 is:
88.510- 51.622= 3 6.88 8.

- The mass of ethanol combusted during exp.1 is:

36.888 - [ 74.424 - 51.505 ] = 13.969 g, or 0.3032 moles.

- Energy transferred into the 200ml glass beaker:

∆T = 37 - 8 = 29 °C
Q = mc DT
Q = 200 ´ 4.1813 ´ 29
Q = 24251 .54 J

- Assuming that all heat is transferred to the water, the calculated enthalpy of
Energy delivered 24251 .54 J
combustion of ethanol is: = = 80 kJ mol -1
Number of moles 0.3032 mol.

Error calculations

The electronic balance used during the experiment read to the nearest 0.001g. The volume of
the 200ml and 100ml class B beakers was known with 2.5% accuracy and the thermometer
read to the nearest 0.5°C.

- The percentage error on the number of moles of ethanol combusted is:

δm 0.001´ 5
= = 0.0358%
m 13.969

- The percentage error on the energy transferred to the water beaker is:

δE édV dT ù
=ê +
E ëV Tú û
dE é 1ù
= ê0.025 +
E ë 29 ú
= 5.95 %

- The error on the calculated enthalpy of combustion of ethanol is:

δH = [5.95% + 0.0358 %] ´ 80000

dH = ±5000 kJ

Similar calculations are made for experiment 2. The outcome of the processed data section is
summarized in the table bellow.

Exp.1 Exp.2

Temp. Change 29±1¡C 29±1¡C

Moles ethanol 0.3032 0.23910

combusted ±0.0001 ±0.00001

24000 12100
transfered to
±1000J ±700J

Enthalpy of 80000 ±5000 50000

combustion J/mol ±3000J/mol

The results of the experiment suggest that the enthalpy of combustion of ethanol lies between
50 and 80 kJ mol-1, which is less than 6% of the hypothetical value of 1368 kJ mol-1.
Moreover, it appears that the metallic beaker produced a smaller enthalpy of combustion than
the glass beaker, which again contradicts with the hypothesis. The outcomes of the
experiment are therefore extremely small and erroneous and this implies a critical flaw in the

In order to discus the possible limitations and flaws of the experiment, it is important to note
what has been done initially to improve it.

It was clear that the main limitation was the loss of heat to the surroundings. This was caused
by the beaker radiating heat through its walls, or by the flame creating air convection currents.
In order to reduce the heat radiation of the beaker, we cooled down the water to about 10°C.
The theory was that if the final temperature was about 33°C then, any heat lost from the water
to the surroundings would be cancelled out by the heat transferred from the surroundings to
the water. This reasoning is based on the assumption that the water spends as much time
above as bellow room temperature, and that heat transfer in both directions is comparable. On
the other hand, it was difficult to stop air convection currents from rising around and on the
sides of the beaker. We were only able to place a plastic shield around the whole apparatus so
as to stop any transverse wind that would displace the flame from underneath the beaker.

Consequently, most of the heat was lost between the flame and the beaker because of the
layer of air separating them. Air is a poor heat conductor so it is logical that little energy is
transferred through it. Also, most heat rises around the beaker relatively fast meaning it stays
in contact with the beaker for a short lapse of time only. This could explain why the metallic
beaker produced a smaller value for the enthalpy of combustion since it was smaller and
narrower, and hot air could easily flow around it.
The most effective way to improve the heat transfer between the flame and the water is to
change the design of the apparatus. All the heated air and combustion gases should be
captured in a metal tube going through the water in the container. This way, the heat in the air
is nearly all transferred to the water.

Metal tube


Spirit Burner

The second greatest source of error was the spirit burner used to combust the ethanol. The
spirit burner contained a piece string that allowed the fuel to rise from the bottom to the flame
by capillarity. The problem is that when the ethanol is transferred from the spirit burner to the
“mass beaker” after the combustion, a large amount of fuel is trapped in the piece of string.
To prevent this limitation, the ethanol was transferred to the “mass beaker” and the flame was
left burning until all the ethanol contained in the string was combusted. This combustion,
however, was incomplete and slow since only a limited quantity of fuel was available. A
possible improvement would involve measuring the mass of ethanol directly, without any
transfer from one container to another. The spirit burner is placed on a balance and the mass
before and after combustion is measured. This way, any volume of ethanol trapped in the
string is taken into account.

Another limitation of the spirit burner is the type of flame it produces. The yellow/orange
flame is a clear sign of the incomplete combustion of the ethanol producing soot and
particulates, which again decrease the efficiency of the combustion. Perhaps the easiest way
to improve this limitation is to add excess oxygen. This should result in a blue flame that
would transfer most of the energy contained in the fuel.

Finally, a small percentage of the missing heat could be absorbed by the different pieces of
apparatus such as the beaker, the heating mat or even the thermometer. Moreover, it should be
noted that the ethanol used during the experiment was not 100% pure meaning some of the
mass was water needing to be boiled off. Nevertheless these limitations are insignificant
compared to the quantity of heat lost during the transfer between the flame, the air, and the


All the outcomes of the experiment are in complete contradiction with the hypothesis and the
expected results. The measured enthalpy of combustion of ethanol is only 6% of its actual
value and the metallic beaker was less effective in absorbing the heat from the flame. These
results suggested a critical flaw in the design of the experiment and allowed the analysis of
the limitations and possible improvements. It appears that a change in the design would
greatly improve the efficiency of the transfer of heat from the flame to the water, which was
the greatest source of error.

Perhaps the most successful outcome of this experiment is that we were able to demonstrate
that air is a relatively good heat insulator and that convection currents carry much of the heat
energy transferred.