Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Rising Steam and Its Temperature
Name: Madhavi
Status: educator
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2/9/2004

Why does steam always rise in upward direction? What is the temperature of water vapour in air?


It rises because the vapor-laden air is warmer and less dense than the surrounding air. Unless the vapor (steam) is very close to the emanation source, its temperature would be very close to the temperature of the surrounding air.

ProfHoff 799

When hot water evaporates, it evaporates as invisible water vapor. Its density to a good approximation is given by the ideal gas law (PV=nRT). The molar density (dmol) = (n/V) = P/RT. At the "normal" boiling point, P = 1 atm, so: (d) = 1/RT where R is the ideal gas law constant 0.08025 (l*atm/mol*kelvin) and T = 373.15 K which corresponds to the "normal" boiling point of 100 C. The density of the surrounding air is approximately 1/RT` where T` ~ 298 K which corresponds to an ambient temperature of 25 C. The mass density (dmass) of the water vapor at the "normal" boiling point is also less than the surrounding air: (dmass) = (m/V) = P*M/R*T, where M is the molecular weight of water and air (18 vs. ~ 28 gm/mol) respectively.

Now when the rising water vapor condenses into small visible droplets and additional 10 kcal/mol of heat is evolved, which further heats the space immediately surrounding the droplets forcing them to rise more by the convection produced.

At this point things can get more complicated, but interesting, so I will pursue it for you. If you live in a cold climate, the upper tier of states in the midwest will do, and if the temperature is very cold -- say 0 F. or lower -- and if the wind is not too high, say less than 20 mph, and finally you have a power plant or other facility that is releasing steam, you will observe that the plume "hangs up" in the atmosphere (either cumulus or stratus) almost motionless, depending upon the wind speed. What is happening here is that the water vapor has condensed into small droplets of either liquid or solid, but because of the low temperature, that cannot evaporate. The capacity of the air for water vapor is so small that the tiny droplets "have no where to go". In addition, now the temperature of the surrounding air has dropped to let's say -40 F = -40C. At that temperature the density of the air is about 30% greater than it is at 25 C. and in relatively still air the tendency for the droplets to fall to earth is greatly decreased since it is now diffusion controlled. The droplets may also have picked up an electrical charge causing them to repel one another, but that is beyond the scope of this response.

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory