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Deflategate: A Real Application of the Ideal Gas Law


Daniel R. Albert
Department of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point


This case study involves analysis of data collected as part of the National Football League's investigation into the New England Patriots allegedly deflating footballs to gain a competitive advantage in a 2015 playoff game. The scandal and subsequent investigation is colloquially known as "Deflategate." After viewing a couple of brief video clips introducing the story, students are asked to analyze the relevant data using the Ideal Gas Law and determine if the data can be explained using scientific principles or if it is likely that the Patriots participated in game misconduct. The case study emphasizes applying the Ideal Gas Law to help answer a real-world question along with critically analyzing data and the manner in which data is collected. The activity is intended to be used by high school and introductory college chemistry courses.

  • To explain kinetic molecular theory.
  • To convert units to absolute pressure and temperature units.
  • To apply the ideal gas law in a real-world scenario.
  • To use basic scientific principles in order to make decisions.
  • To work with real-world data that has uncertainty.
  • To recognize flaws in experimental design and emphasize the importance of good experimental design.
Keywords: Ideal Gas Law; data analysis; pressure; psi; football; NFL; deflategate; PSI; cheating; Patriots; Brady
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Directed, Discussion
Language: English
Subject Headings: Analytical Chemistry   Chemistry (General)   Physics   Physical Chemistry  
Date Posted: 9/30/2015
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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Use of the simple gas law, PV = nRT is not sufficient to answer the question. The room temp. air undergoes adiabatic compression and on entering the ball is hotter than room temp. so the usual equation governing adiabatic compression should be used to compute the temp of the air entering the ball minus the temp. decrease due to temp. loss in the air hose.

A. Anderson

Wilmington, DE
Author's Response to Comment about Adiabatic Compression/Expansion: In determining if the Patriots cheated by deflating footballs, the crux of the problem comes from comparing the pressure of the footballs measured before the game with the pressure of the footballs measured at halftime. The footballs were inflated well before the initial pressure measurement before the game. The air in the footballs measured before the game will have had enough time to come to thermal equilibrium with its surrounding environment. Heating/cooling from adiabatic compression/expansion does not play a role in solving this problem. The gas in the football can be treated as a closed system where the number of gas molecules remains constant (assuming the Patriots didn’t cheat by deflating the balls). The pressures in the footballs are reasonably low, which allows for the assumptions inherent in the ideal gas law to be good approximations. Under these conditions the only variables that will affect the pressure are number of gas particles, volume, and temperature. The volume of a football is effectively constant over the pressure ranges considered. If the Patriots did not cheat, then the number of gas particles will remain constant and only the variation in temperature will affect the pressure. The ideal gas law is sufficient for determining if the data can be explained by changes in temperature or if the data cannot be explained by only the changes in temperature.

Daniel R. Albert
Department of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point


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