What Is a Vacuum in Science? Definition and Examples

Vacuum Examples and Definition
A vacuum is a volume containing little or no matter. Outer space is a good example, even though it isn’t a perfect vacuum.

In science, a vacuum is a volume that contains little or no matter. In other words, a vacuum is a region with an extremely low pressure. The word “vacuum” comes from the Latin word vacuus, meaning “empty.” A vacuum may occur naturally or be produced by pumping air out of a container or using fluid flow to reduce pressure (Bernoulli’s principle).

Partial Vacuum vs Perfect Vacuum

In the real world, a vacuum is partial or imperfect. A few atoms or molecules always remain. The pressure of a partial vacuum is lower than atmospheric pressure, but isn’t zero. A perfect vacuum is a theoretical space completely devoid of matter. This type of vacuum also goes by the name “free space.”

Examples of a Vacuum

Any region with a pressure lower than atmospheric pressure is vacuum. Here are examples of a vacuum:

  • The inside of an incandescent lightbulb is a vacuum.
  • Space is a near-perfect vacuum.
  • The thin atmospheres of the Moon, Mercury, and Mars are a vacuum (at least compared to Earth).
  • Suction from a vacuum cleaner forms a vacuum.
  • The insulating area between the glass walls of a thermos contain a vacuum.
  • The Earth’s thermosphere is a vacuum.
  • A strong hurricane’s low pressure is a partial vacuum.

Comparing Different Vacuums

Here is a comparison of the number of particles per unit volume in different types of vacuums:

Pressure Molecules per cm3
Standard atmosphere (not a vacuum)101.325 kPa2.5×1019
Strong hurricane87 to 95 kPa1019
Vacuum cleaner~80 kPa1019
Liquid ring vacuum pump~3.2 kPa1018
Martian atmosphere1.155 kPa to 0.03 kPa
Incandescent light bulb10 to 1 Pa1015 to 1014
Thermos1 to 0.1 Pa1014 to 1012
Earth’s thermosphereas low as 10−7 Pa107
Vacuum tube10−5 to 10−8 Pa109 to 106
Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) chamber10−7 to10−9107 to 105
Lunar atmosphere~1×10−94×105
Interplanetary spacealmost 011
Interstellar spacealmost 01
Intergalactic spacealmost 010−6
Perfect vacuum00

The closest you can get to a vacuum in a laboratory is around 13 pPa, but a cryogenic vacuum system can achieve pressure as low as 5×10−17 torr or 6.7 fPa.

Humans can recover from exposure to a vacuum lasting 90 seconds or less. Plants can last about 30 minutes. A tardigrade survives in a vacuum for days or weeks!

Easy Ways to Make a Vacuum

The best vacuums use expensive pumps to remove gases. But, it’s easy to make a vacuum yourself using common materials:

  1. Attach a suction cup to a window. Pull back on the suction cup. The space between the cup and the glass is a vacuum.
  2. Cap the end of an empty syringe to seal it. Pull up on the plunger. The empty volume within the syringe is a vacuum. If the syringe contains a bit of water, the low pressure makes it boil.
  3. Attach the hose of the vacuum cleaner to a rigid, otherwise sealed container. The appliance sucks out the air, leaving an imperfect vacuum.
  4. Breathing creates a partial vacuum. When your diaphragm drops, the increase in volume decreases pressure inside the alveoli of the lungs. The pressure difference leads to inhalation.
  5. If you have access to a laboratory, a vacuum filter uses water flow to remove air from a flask. The inside of the flask is a partial vacuum.

Why Is Space a Vacuum?

Gravity is the reason space is a near-perfect vacuum. Over time, gravity draws particles of matter together, forming gas clouds, stars, and planets. The expanses between interstellar objects are left almost empty. Also, the Universe is expanding. Even without gravity, the space between particles increases.


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