METHODOLOGICAL NOTES: Metastable phases, phase transformations, and phase diagrams in physics and chemistry
Concepts of a 'phase' and a 'phase transition' are discussed for stable and metastable states of matter. While condensed matter physics primarily considers equilibrium states and treats metastable phases as exceptions, organic chemistry overwhelmingly deals with metastable states. It is emphasized that many simple light-element compounds — including most hydrocarbons; nitrogen oxides, hydrides, and carbides; carbon monoxide CO; alcohols and glycerin — are also metastable at normal pressure in the sense that they do not correspond to a minimum Gibbs free energy for a given chemical composition. At moderate temperatures and pressures, the phase transformations for these metastable phases are reversible with the fulfilment of all laws of equilibrium thermodynamics over the entire range of experimentally accessible times. At sufficiently high pressures (> 1-10 GPa), most of the metastable molecular phases irreversibly transform to lower-energy polymer phases, stable or metastable. These transitions do not correspond to the equality of the Gibbs free energy for the involved phases before and after the transition and so they are not first-order in the 'classical' sense. At normal pressure, the resulting polymer phases can exist at temperatures above the melting point of the original metastable molecular phase, as the examples of polyethylene and polymerized CO dramatically illustrate. As pressure is increased further to 20-50 GPa, the PV contribution to Gibbs free energy gives rise to stable high-density atomic phases. Many of the intermediate-energy polymer phases can likely be synthesized by methods of 'classical' chemistry at normal pressure.