Introduction to Matter (Book)

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Changes in Matter

Conservation of Mass

If you build a campfire, like the one in Figure below, you start with a large stack of sticks and logs. As the fire burns, the stack slowly shrinks. By the end of the evening, all that’s left is a small pile of ashes. What happened to the matter that you started with? Was it destroyed by the flames? It may seem that way, but in fact, the same amount of matter still exists. The wood changed not only to ashes but also to carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other gases. The gases floated off into the air, leaving behind just the ashes.

Burning is a chemical process. Is mass destroyed when wood burns?

Assume you had measured the mass of the wood before you burned it. Assume you had also trapped the gases released by the burning wood and measured their mass and the mass of the ashes. What would you find? The ashes and gases combined have the same mass as the wood you started with.

This example illustrates the law of conservation of mass. The law states that matter cannot be created or destroyed. Even when matter goes through physical or chemical changes, the total mass of matter always remains the same. (In the chapter Nuclear Chemistry, you will learn about nuclear reactions, in which mass is converted into energy. But other than that, the law of conservation of mass holds.) For a fun challenge, try to apply the law of conservation of mass to a scene from a Harry Potter film at this link: