Asee peer logo

Measuring The Energy Content Of Food: A ‘Relevant’ First Law Experiment For A Thermodynamics Class

Download Paper |


2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Improving ME Instructional Laboratories

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1045.1 - 12.1045.21



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Brian Sangeorzan Oakland University

visit author page

BRIAN SANGEORZAN ( is an associate professor in the department of
Mechanical Engineering at Oakland University. He directs engine research activities at Oakland
University and has 23 years experience teaching and conducting research in engine-related fluid
and thermal phenomena.

visit author page


Laila Guessous Oakland University

visit author page

LAILA GUESSOUS ( is an assistant professor in the department of
Mechanical Engineering at Oakland University. She received her M.S. (1994) and Ph.D. (1999)
from the University of Michigan and joined OU in August 2000. Her research and teaching
interests lie in the areas of fluid mechanics and heat transfer, with an emphasis on computational
methods. She is the program director for the NSF and DoD funded Automotive Research and
Industrial Mentorship REU program.

visit author page

Download Paper |

NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Measuring the Energy Content of Food: A ‘Relevant’ First Law Experiment for a Thermodynamics Class


What marginally motivated undergraduate student would not perk up at the thought of working with food or a “bomb”, or both, in a thermodynamics laboratory experiment? Sure, our experience has shown that students express some slight disappointment when they find out that the experiment in question does not involve any loud explosions or flashes of light, and that the food amounts are miniscule (on the order of a few grams, sealed in an unappetizing gelatin capsule); but, overall, students greatly enjoy performing the experiment described in this paper, and along the way learn some important lessons about applying the First Law of Thermodynamics and its relevance to our everyday lives.

In this paper we describe a thermodynamics experiment that involves measuring the energy content of a food sample, whose contents are unknown to the students. This is achieved by burning the sample in a combustion bomb, measuring the temperature rise of the water in the calorimeter, applying conservation of energy principles to estimate the energy value of the food sample in calories/gram and scurrying down supermarket aisles (or the internet) to collect nutritional information on a number of potential food items. The description will include an outline of the relevant measurements, calculations, engineering principles and their relevance to Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) Program Outcomes.


Engineering Thermodynamics is a basic engineering science that deals with energy and energy transformation, as well as principles of problem-solving that span all engineering disciplines. The importance of energy to our economy and the relevance of energy to current economic, political and social problems cannot be overstated. That said, thermodynamics is often perceived as a difficult subject, and students often have a difficult time seeing relevance for the material during the early stages of their studies. Additionally, in those programs that require a thermodynamics course of all engineering majors, the non-mechanical engineering students often “resist enjoying” the material because they don’t immediately see relevance to their curricula or to their everyday lives.

The engineering curriculum at Oakland University consists of a common engineering core that has included engineering thermodynamics since its inception. In the fall of 2004, a Core Curriculum Review Committee was established to study the core and propose a revised common core that would include subject material deemed necessary to a well-rounded engineering education, while considering the additional constraints imposed upon the various programs resulting from accreditation requirements, the incorporation of modern technologies and increasing general education content on our campus. For those of us that wished to see thermodynamics remain a part of the core,

Sangeorzan, B., & Guessous, L. (2007, June), Measuring The Energy Content Of Food: A ‘Relevant’ First Law Experiment For A Thermodynamics Class Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2808

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2007 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015