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I like to think of a bicycle pump. When you push the pump down, you are exerting a positive force in work on the pump. However, if the gas were to push back against you, it is counteracting your work, so it’s negative work done by the pump (system).
When work is done on the system, work is positive. This is due to the fact that the reaction's capacity to do work has INCREASED. The same can be said for a reaction where work is done on the surroundings and the sign is negative because the reaction has lost energy to its surroundings in the form of work.
I am confused as well especially when utilizing the equation W=-nRT sometimes the solution is positive work instead of negative. How can I tell if it’s negative or positive even if the equation has a negative sign in it?
if you have a system that work is done on then the work of the system will be positive, if you have a system and work is done by it then work of the system will be negative. I think of it as the system is using energy to do some work on the outside so it is losing that energy.
Determining the sign of work is based on what you decide is your system and what is your surroundings - it's relative. Positive work means that work was done on the system, so it gains energy. Negative work means that work was done by the system, and the system loses energy.
Generally we refer to everything from the perspective of the system, which means that positive work means that work is being done on the system. You can also think of doing work ON some system as adding energy to it, so it makes sense that work is positive.
When work is done on the system, it is positive. When work is done by the system onto surroundings, it is negative. If the system exerts force on its surroundings, the system itself loses energy, explaining the negative value.
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