A lifetime of hot air

We’ve been making some Fermi estimations in the Math for Liberal Arts class I am teaching, and today we discuss the following question:

Question. If you collect all the hot-air that you have breathed in your life, what would the volume be? If you made a hot-air balloon, would it be able to lift you and all your possessions?

To answer, let’s start with the first part. How much do I breathe? If I imagine inhaling and then exhaling a deep, big breath, I figure I could inflate a small paper bag, perhaps well over one liter, but probably not as much as two liters. But my passive resting breathing is probably much less than a big deep breath. So let’s figure a half liter per ordinary passive breath. How often do I breathe? Well, in the swimming pool, I can hold my breath under water for a minute or even two minutes (in my younger swim-team days); but if I hold my breath right now, I can say that it does start to feel a little unnatural, like I should take my next breath, even after just about five or ten seconds, even though this impulse could be resisted longer. It seems to me that my body wants to take another breath in about that time. If we breathe every five seconds, that would mean 12 breaths per minute, so let’s say ten breaths per minute, which would mean a volume of 5 liters per minute. That makes $5\times 60=300$ liters per hour, or $300*24=7200$ liters per day. In a year, this would be $7200\times 365$, which is less than 7000 times 400, which is 2,800,000 liters per year. Let’s say 2.5 million liters per year of hot air. Times 50 years would make $125$ million liters of hot air in all.

Now, each liter of air fills a cube 10 cm on a side, and one thousand of these fit into a cubic meter. So we’ve got 125,000 cubic meters of hot air. This is the same as a cube 50 meters by 50 meters by 50 meters. That is my hot-air balloon! Filled with a lifetime of hot air. (This is considerably larger, more than one hundred times as large, as a typical recreational hot-air balloon, which I understand are usually under 1000 cubic meters. From this point of view, it would seem likely that it could lift me and all my possessions, although body temperature may be much less than is achieved in those balloons.)

If the air was at my body temperature ($98.6^\circ$ F), then would it be able to lift me and all my possessions? Well, let’s see how much it would lift. Hot air expands in proportion to temperature (from absolute zero). If it is a day like today, about $50^\circ$ degrees F, which is about a 50 degree F difference, and absolute zero is minus 460 F. So this is about a 10 per cent increase in temperature. (In metric: we have body temperature of about 37 degrees, and it is about 10 degrees Celsius today, so a difference of 27 degrees, and absolute zero is minus 270, so about ten per cent increase, as I had said.)

So the heat of the hot air caused it to expand in volume by ten percent. The buoyant force of the hot-air balloon is exactly the weight of this displaced air, by the Archimedean principle. Thus, the lifting force of my hot-air balloon will be equal to the mass of air filling ten percent of the volume we computed. How much does air weigh? I happen to remember from my high school science class that one mole of air at one atmosphere of pressure is about 22 liters (my teacher had a cube of exactly that size sitting on his desk, to help us to visualize it). And I also know that air is mainly nitrogen, which forms the molecule $N_2$, and since nitrogen in the periodic table has an atomic number of 14, the molecule $N_2$ has a mass of 28 grams per mole. So air weighs about 28 grams per 22 liters, which is about 1.3 grams per liter. Each cubic meter is one thousand liters, and so 1.3 kilograms per cubic meter (this is much larger than I had expected—air weighs more than one kilogram per cubic meter!). My hot air in total was 125,000 cubic meters, and we said that because of the temperature difference, the volume expanded by ten percent, or 12,500 cubic meters. This expansion would displace an equal volume of air, which weighs 1.3 kg per cubic meter. Thus, the displaced air weighs $12,500\times 1.3\approx 16,000$ kilograms, or about 16 metric tons. So all my hot air, at body temperature in a giant hot air balloon on a chilly day, would have a lifting force able to lift 16 metric tons.

Would this lift me and all my possessions? Do I own 16 tons of stuff? Well, thankfully, I don’t own a car, which would be a ton or more by itself. But I do own a lot of books, a piano, an oven, a dishwasher, some heavy furniture, paintings, and various other items, as well as a collection of large potted plants on my terrace. It seems likely to me that I could fit most if not all my possessions within 16 tons. To gain a little confidence in this, let’s estimate the mass of my books. My wife and I have about twelve large shelves filled with books, each about 2 meters, and then I have about 3 more such shelves filled with books in my offices at the university. If we count half of the home books as mine, plus my office books, that makes 9 shelves times two meters, for about 20 meters of books. If the books are about 25 cm tall on average, and 15 cm deep, that makes $20\times .25\times .15=.75$ cubic meters of books. Let’s round up to one cubic meter of books. How much does a cubic meter of paper weigh? Well, one ream of copy paper weighs about 2 kilograms, and that is a volume of 8.5 by 11 by 2 inches. One meter is about 33 inches, and so we could fill one cubic meter with a pile of reams of copy paper 3 by 3 by 17, which would be 163 reams, or about 300 kilograms. So not even a half ton of books! So I can definitely lift all my most important possessions within the 16 tons.

Final answer: Yes, if we filled a giant balloon with all the hot-air I have breathed in my life, at body temperature, then it would lift me and all my possessions.