Heat Flow

Up Heating Things Up Heat Flow The Wood Stove Specific Heat

When you bring two objects of different temperature together, energy will always be transferred from the hotter to the cooler object.  The objects will exchange thermal energy, until thermal equilibrium is reached, i.e. until their temperatures are equal.  We say that heat flows from the hotter to the cooler object.  Heat is energy on the move.  
Units of heat are units of energy.  The SI unit of energy is Joule.  Other often encountered units of energy are 1 Cal = 1 kcal = 4186 J, 1 cal = 4.186 J, 1 Btu = 1054 J.

Without an external agent doing work, heat will always flow from a hotter to a cooler object.  Two objects of different temperature always interact.  There are three different ways for heat to flow from one object to another.  They are conduction, convection, and radiation.



The atoms in a solid vibrate about their equilibrium positions.  As they vibrate, they bump into their neighbors.  In those collisions they exchange energy with their neighbors.  If the different regions of a solid object or of several solid objects placed in contact with each other have the same temperature, then all atoms are just as likely to gain energy as to loose energy in the collisions.  Their average random kinetic energy does not change.  If, however, one region has a higher temperature than another region, then the atoms in the high temperature region will, on average, loose energy in the collisions, and the atoms in the low temperature region will, on average, gain energy.  In this way heat flows through a solid by conduction.

The stiffness of the springs (strength of the chemical bonds) determines how easily the atoms can exchange energy and therefore determines if the material is a good or bad conductor of heat.  Each atom has a nucleus, surrounded by electrons.  In a solid metal all nuclei are bound to their equilibrium positions.  But some electrons are free to move throughout the solid.  They can easily pick up kinetic energy in collisions with hot cores and loose it again in collision with cooler cores.  Since their mean free path between collisions is larger than the distance between neighboring atoms, thermal energy can move quickly through the material.  Metals are, in general, much better conductors of heat than insulators.



Convection transfers heat via the motion of a fluid which contains thermal energy.  In an environment where a constant gravitational force F = mg acts on every object of mass m, convection develops naturally because of changes in the fluids density with temperature.  When a fluid, such as air or water, is in contact with a hotter object, it picks up thermal energy by conduction.  Its density decreases.  For a given volume of the fluid, the upward buoyant force equals the weight of this volume of cool fluid.  The downward force is the weight of this volume of hot fluid.  The upward force has a larger magnitude than the downward force and the volume of hot fluid rises.  Similarly, when a fluid is in contact with a colder object, it cools and sinks.  When a volume of fluid such as air or water starts to move, the surrounding fluid has to rush in to fill the void.  Otherwise large pressure differences would develop.  This sets up a convection current and the looping path that follows is a convection cell.  Since fluid can not pile up at some point in space without creating a high-pressure area, it will flow in a closed loop.  Convection can be increased if the fluid is forced to circulate.  A fan, for example, forces the air to circulate.

Video:  Convection Current


Nuclei and electrons are charged particles.  When charged particles accelerate, they emit electromagnetic radiation and loose energy.  Vibrating particles are always accelerating since their velocity is always changing.  They therefore always emit electromagnetic radiation.  Charged particles also absorb electromagnetic radiation.  When they absorb the radiation they accelerate.  Their random kinetic energy increases.  In thermal equilibrium, the amount of energy they loose to radiation equals the amount of energy they gain from radiation.  But hotter objects emit more radiation than they absorb from their cooler environment.  Radiation can therefore transport heat from a hotter to a cooler object.

wave.gif (1694 bytes)

Electromagnetic radiation refers to electromagnetic waves, which travel through space with the speed of light.  We classify electromagnetic waves according to their wavelength.  A graphical representation of the electromagnetic spectrum is shown in the figure below.

spectrum.gif (2981 bytes)

The visible part of the spectrum may be further subdivided according to color, with red at the long wavelength end and violet at the short wavelength end, as illustrated in the following figure.

visible.gif (13343 bytes)

Hot objects emit radiation with a distribution of wavelengths.  But the average wavelength of the radiation decreases as the temperature of the object increases.  Most thermal radiation lies in the infrared region of the spectrum.  We cannot see this radiation, but we can feel it warming our skin.  Different objects emit and absorb infrared radiation at different rates.  Black surfaces are generally good emitters


Example of all heat transfer processes: