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The Physics of Balloons and Submarines

Helium, H2 and hot-air balloons and

submarines have mass.
Why dont they fall down ?
What is the force that makes them go up ?

What is air ?
It is a gas (80% N2).
consists of lots of molecules/atoms bouncing
around in free-fall.
Can we catch air ? (Use a balloon!) How can we measure it ?

Air has pressure!

atoms banging on the walls of container exerts forces on walls
Average Force is proportional to the area
Define Pressure = Force/Unit area
Question: Compare the air pressure inside
and outside the balloon. Are they different?
A unit Area

Air has density!

A volume of air particles has an average mass
Density = average mass/unit volume (1.25 kg/m3)

Air pressure is proportional to density:

denser air: more particles hit surface
denser air
more pressure

The Ideal Gas Law Equation

We learned that Pressure of an Ideal Gas is proportional to Particle Density.

P ,

for fixed temperature T

Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of atoms, and

is related to the pressure. In fact, Pressure is proportional to Temperature.

P T, for fixed particle density

These relations lead to the ideal gas law equation
(holds only for non-interacting particles):

Boltzmanns constant
1.38 x 10-23 Pa-m3/particle-K

Particle density

Absolute Temperature ( Kelvin)

C + 273 = K(Kelvin scale)
e.g. 0 C = 273 K

Profile of a Helium Balloon in Air or an Air Bubble in Water

(thin air)

Unbalanced Pressures exert an overall upward force,

forces balloon to move towards lower pressure.

(dense air)

Why do you float in your swimming pool ?

Why does a helium balloon fly when released ?
Its all the same thing, really (water and air are both fluids).
Lets do a thought experiment.
Lower pressure
Higher pressure

A. Consider a spherical
volume of H20 stationary
in the liquid:
Wsphere = buoyant force

B. Replace the H20 sphere with a

solid sphere of equal volume.
A Submerged object feels a
buoyant force equal to the weight
of the volume of liquid displaced !
- Archimedess Principle

It doesnt matter what material you submerge. For the same volume,
they all experience the same buoyant force (BF)!

If the submerged bodys weight W > BF, it sinks to the bottom.

If the submerged bodys weight W < BF, it rises to the top.

The difference in air pressure produces as upward

Buoyant Force on things around us.
High Altitudes: Low Air density (thin air) -> Low Pressures

Air pushes up
more than down.
But not all things
float. Why ?

Low Altitudes: High Air density -> Large Air Pressures

A Recipe for Floating Balloons

1. Fill balloon w/ any gas that is lighter than air, e.g. He, H2, etc.
BF = airVg


mg = (HeV)g

He air

Volume V

2. Fill the balloon with air and heat it.

BF = airVg
Hot air

mg = (hot

Volume V

hot air air

Why a Hot-air Balloon Floats

Note: Outside and Inside pressures are equal
(otherwise balloon will expand or contract)
Hot Air less
dense inside

Cool Air denser


Hot-air balloons:
contains fewer air particles than if it were cold
must therefore be lighter (less dense) than the volume
of relatively colder air it displaces, making them float

Buoyant Force (BF) = Vdisplaced air g: The larger the balloon, the larger BF