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Aim: To determine the time constant of a first order system (Mercury in glass thermometer)
from its response to a step change in the forcing function.

 Mercury in glass thermometer of sufficiently large size bulb.
 Oil bath with a heater
 Stop watch
 Cotton to wipe out oil from the thermometer

1. Heat the oil in the oil bath to temperature of about 200o C.
2. Dip the given thermometer in oil bath and allow the temperature to rise well beyond
about 160o C.
3. Take out the thermometer from oil bath and wipe out oil from its bulb with cotton.
[Take care to wipe out oil completely otherwise the oil film around the bulb will
create an additional resistance to heat transfer and will change the time constant
of thermometer.]
4. As soon as the temperature reaches 140o C start the stop watch.
5. Note down the time taken for the temperature reading to fall by every 5o C interval.
[Note: Initially it may be difficult to note down the time interval between every 5o
C fall in temperature. In the even repeat step number 2 and 3 and take reading
for 5, 10, 15, 20o C fall in temperature. Eventually the interval will be sufficiently
large and readings can be taken without repeating step number 2 and 3]. Allow
sufficient time for reading to come sufficiently near to the ambient temperature.
6. Repeat step number 2 to 5 for different initial temperatures (say 120o C and 100o C).

Consider a thermometer located in a flowing stream of fluid whose temperature ‘x’
varies with time. Our problem is to find out variation in the thermometer reading ‘y’ with
respect to time. The following assumptions will be made to analyze this problem,
I. All the resistance to the heat transfer resides in the film surrounding the bulb (i. e.
The resistance offered by the glass envelop and mercury is negligible.)
II. All the thermal capacitance is in the mercury. (i. e. The thermal capacity of glass
envelop is negligible compared to that of mercury.) Furthermore, for any instance
of time; temperature of mercury at any location inside the bulb is same.
III. The glass wall containing mercury does not expand or contract during the transient
response. (In actual thermometer the expansion of wall has an additional effect on the
response of the thermometer.)
The unsteady state energy balance equation for this system can be written as
Energy input – Energy output = Accumulation of energy (1)
When the thermometer is subjected to any change in the surrounding temperature x(t)
either the thermal energy will enter or leave the mercury in the thermometer bulb and
equation (1) can be written as
ℎ × 𝐴𝐴 × (𝑥𝑥 − 𝑦𝑦) − 0 = 𝑚𝑚 × 𝐶𝐶𝑝𝑝 × (2)

A = Surface area of the bulb available for the heat transfer [m2]
Cp = Specific heat of mercury [Kcal/Kg* 0C]
m = Mass of mercury in bulb [Kg]
t = Time [hr]
h = Film heat transfer coefficient between surrounding fluid and thermometer bulb
Equation (2) is a first order differential equation. Before solving this equation by means of
Laplace transform, another variable “deviation variable” shall be introduced. The reason for
this is that as long as the system is at steady state, it is inconsequential to find indicated
temperature as it is at its desired value. One is interested only when it deviates from its
desired value. In case of steady state condition, things do not change with time and equation
(2) can be written as
h * A* (xs - ys) – 0 = 0 (3)
The subscript ‘s’ is used to indicate that the variable is at the steady state value.
Equation (3) stes that xs = ys or in other words the thermometer reads true fluid temperature.
Subtracting equation (3) from equation (2) gives
𝑑𝑑(𝑦𝑦−𝑦𝑦𝑠𝑠 )
ℎ ∗ 𝐴𝐴 ∗ [(𝑥𝑥 − 𝑥𝑥𝑠𝑠 ) − (𝑦𝑦 − 𝑦𝑦𝑠𝑠 )] − 0 = 𝑚𝑚 ∗ 𝐶𝐶𝑝𝑝 ∗ (4)
If we define the deviation variable to be the difference between the variable and its
corresponding steady state value and denote it by in capital then we can write
𝑋𝑋 = (𝑥𝑥 − 𝑥𝑥𝑠𝑠 ) 𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑑𝑑 𝑌𝑌 = (𝑦𝑦 − 𝑦𝑦𝑠𝑠 ) (5)
Substituting equation (5) in equation (4) and dividing both the sides by h*A gives
𝑚𝑚 ∗𝐶𝐶𝑝𝑝 𝑑𝑑𝑑𝑑
𝑋𝑋 − 𝑌𝑌 = ∗[ ] (6)
ℎ∗𝐴𝐴 𝑑𝑑𝑑𝑑

Dimensions of
𝑚𝑚 ∗𝐶𝐶𝑝𝑝 𝐾𝐾𝐾𝐾𝐾𝐾𝐾𝐾 ℎ𝑟𝑟∗𝑚𝑚 2 ∗0 𝐶𝐶 1
= [𝐾𝐾𝐾𝐾] ∗ � �∗� �∗� � = ℎ𝑟𝑟

It has dimensions of time alone. As soon as the thermometer is selected values of m,

Cp and A becomes well defined. When the system of surrounding fluid is selected value of
𝑚𝑚 ∗𝐶𝐶𝑝𝑝
‘h’ also gets fixed. Thus for given system and thermometer has a constant value and

has dimensions of time. Thus this is known as time constant and is denoted by 𝜏𝜏. Thus
equation (6) can be written as
𝑋𝑋 − 𝑌𝑌 = 𝜏𝜏 ∗ (7)

Taking Laplace transform of equations (7) and rearranging it as ratio of Y(S) and
X(S) gives
𝑌𝑌(𝑆𝑆) 1
= (𝜏𝜏∗𝑆𝑆)+1 (8)

The expression on which right hand side of equation (8) is called transfer function of
a system which the ratio of Laplace transform of response of a system (thermometer reading)
to Laplace transform of input variable (surrounding fluid temperature).
By reviewing steps leading to equation (8) it can be seen that the introduction of
deviation variable prior to taking the Laplace transform of a differential equation results in a
transfer function that is free of initial conditions because the initial values of X and Y are
zero. In control system engineering, we are primarily concerned with the deviation of
the system variables from their steady state values. The use of deviation variable is,
therefore, natural as well as convenient.
If a step change of magnitude ‘A’ is introduced in forcing function (input variable) then it can
be written as
𝑋𝑋(𝑆𝑆) = (9)

Substituting equation (9) in equation (8) and rearranging we get

𝑌𝑌(𝑆𝑆) = 1 (10)
(𝑆𝑆)∗(𝑆𝑆+ )

Taking Laplace inverse of equation (10) by partial fractions gives us

𝑌𝑌(𝑡𝑡) = 𝐴𝐴 ∗ (1 − 𝑒𝑒 − �𝜏𝜏 ) (11)
This is the response of thermometer to a step change in the input variable. From
equation (11) it can be observed that after sufficiently long time contribution due to term
𝑒𝑒 𝜏𝜏 will become zero and Y(t) will approach ‘A’ asymptotically. Several features of this
response are worth remembering as listed below.
 Value of Y(t) reaches 63.2% of its ultimate value after one time constant. After the
elapsed time of 2𝜏𝜏, 3𝜏𝜏, 4𝜏𝜏, and 5𝜏𝜏 the percentage response is 86.5, 95, 98, and 99.2%
respectively. From these facts one can consider that the response is essentially
completed in 5 time constants.
 If response Y(t) is differentiated with respect to time we get
𝑑𝑑𝑑𝑑(𝑡𝑡) 𝐴𝐴 −𝑡𝑡�
= ∗ 𝑒𝑒 𝜏𝜏 (12)
𝑑𝑑𝑑𝑑 𝜏𝜏

Equation (12) give slope of response curve at any instant of time. Obviously the slope
of response curve at time t=0 is given by (A/𝜏𝜏) i. e. if we draw tangent to the response curve
at t=0 and extend it to step size the time at this intersection should be equal to one time
Thus by making use of tangent to the response curve at t=0 as well as from 63.2% of
the response the time constant of the system can be determined.

Observation table:
Sr No. Time (s) Temperature (0C)
Sr. No. Ta (0C) Ti (0C) ∆T=A (0C) 𝜏𝜏 (s)

 Compute 𝜏𝜏 Value
 Plot Temperature Vs time for both experimental and predicted values in MS Excel
 Include observation table, Results/ Conclusion in report

Questions to think:
 What can be the effect of other types of inputs like
 What are the measured, manipulated and controlled variables, disturbances and output
variables in this experiment?
 How the different properties of mercury like h, Cp, area of thermometer affects the
 Can you think of more examples of first order system in our day to day life?