in mechanics, ratio of the force acting on a surface to the area of the surface; it is thus distinct from the total force acting on a surface. A force can be applied to and sustained by a single point on a solid. However, a force can only be sustained by the surface of an enclosed fluid, i.e., a liquid or a gas. Thus it is more convenient to describe the forces acting on and within fluids in terms of pressure. Units of pressure are frequently force units divided by area units, e.g., pounds per square inch, dynes per square centimeter, or newtons (N) per square meter.
A fluid exerts a pressure on all bodies immersed in it. For a fluid at rest the difference in pressure between two points in it depends only upon the density of the fluid and the difference in depth between the two points. For example, a swimmer diving down in a lake can easily observe an increase in pressure with depth. For each meter (foot) increase in depth, the swimmer is subjected to an increase in pressure of 9,810 N per sq m (62.4 lb per sq ft), because water weighs 9,810 N per cu m (62.4 lb per cu ft). Since a liquid is nearly incompressible, its density does not change significantly with increasing depth. Therefore, the increase in pressure is caused solely by the increase in depth.
The variations in pressure of a gas are more complicated. For example, since air has such a low density compared to a liquid, a change in its pressure is only measurable between points that have a great height difference. The air pressure in a typical room is the same everywhere, but it is noticeably lower at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Because air is a gas, it is compressible. Its density decreases with increasing altitude. Thus changes in air pressure depend upon both the variations in the density of air and changes in the altitude at which it is measured. These two factors combine to reduce the air pressure at an altitude of 5,500 m (18,000 ft) to one half its value at sea level. Atmospheric (air) pressure at sea level will support a column of mercury that is about 76 cm (30 in.) high. The exact height varies with the weather. A unit called a standard atmosphere exerts a pressure equivalent to a column of mercury 76 cm high at sea level when the temperature is 0 degrees Celsius; it is equal to 101,300 N per sq m (14.7 lb per sq in.).
Different gas laws relate the pressure of a gas to its volume, its temperature, or both. A rise in pressure affects both the melting point and the boiling point of a substance, raising the melting and boiling points of most substances. In the case of water, however, an increase in pressure lowers its melting point so that the pressure of a skate blade on an ice surface causes the ice below it to be converted to the liquid state (see states of matter; expansion). Bernoulli's principle relates the effect of the velocity of a fluid on the pressure within the fluid.
A body immersed in a fluid experiences a larger upward pressure on its lower surface than a downward pressure on its upper surface because of the difference in height or depth between the two surfaces; this difference in pressure results in a buoyant force that pushes the body upward (see Archimedes' principle). If the weight of the body is less than the buoyant force, the body will rise; if the weight is greater, the body will sink. The buoyant effect of this pressure may be noted in the rise of balloons or other objects filled with gases, such as hydrogen or helium, that are less dense than air.
According to Pascal's law the pressure exerted on an enclosed fluid is transmitted undiminished throughout the fluid and acts equally in all directions. On the basis of this law, various hydraulic devices are used to multiply a force. For example, a force of 10 N exerted on a piston whose area is 1 sq m and which is inserted into an enclosed chamber filled with water or another fluid transmits a pressure of 10 N per sq m throughout the fluid. If a second piston, at another part of the chamber, has an area of 10 sq m, then this pressure results in a force of 10 N being exerted on each square meter of its area, or 100 N total force.
The instrument for measuring atmospheric pressure, the barometer, is calibrated to read zero when there is a complete vacuum; the pressure indicated by the instrument is therefore called absolute pressure. The term "pressure gauge" is commonly applied to the other instruments used for measuring pressure. They are manufactured in a great variety of sizes and types and are employed for recording pressures exerted by substances other than air—water, oil, various gases—registering pressures as low as 13.8×103 N per sq m (2 lb per sq in.) or as high as 13.8×107 N per sq m (10 tons per sq in.) and over (as in hydraulic presses). Some pressure gauges are made to carry out special operations, such as the one used on a portable air compressor. In this case, the gauge acts automatically to stop further operation when the pressure has reached a certain point and to start it up again when compression has fallen off to a certain limit.
In general, a gauge consists of a metal tube or diaphragm that becomes distorted when pressure is applied and, by an arrangement of multiplying levers and gears, causes an indicator to register the pressure upon a graduated dial. The Bourdon gauge used to measure steam pressure and vacuum consists essentially of a hollow metal tube closed at one end and bent into a curve, generally elliptic in section. The open end is connected to the boiler. As the pressure inside the tube (from the boiler) increases, the tube tends to straighten out. The closed end is attached to an indicating needle, which registers the extent to which the tube straightens out. For pressure too small to be accurately measured by the Bourdon gauge, the manometer is used. The simplest type of manometer consists of a U tube partially filled with a liquid (i.e., mercury), leaving one end open to the atmosphere and the other end to the source of pressure. If the pressure being measured is greater or less than atmospheric pressure, the liquid in the tube moves accordingly. Pressures up to several million lb per sq in. have been produced in experiments to determine the effect of high pressure on various substances.
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