Modes of heat transfer

Modes of heat transfer

Heat transfer

Heat transfer is the transition of thermal energy or simply heat from a hotter object to a cooler object ("object" in this sense designating a complex collection of particles which is capable of storing energy in many different ways). When an object or fluid is at a different temperature than its surroundings or another object, transfer of thermal energy, also known as heat transfer, or heat exchange, occurs in such a way that the body and the surroundings reach thermal equilibrium. Heat transfer always occurs from a higher-temperature object to a cooler temperature one as described by the second law of thermodynamics. Where there is a temperature difference between objects in proximity, heat transfer between them can never be stopped; it can only be slowed.


Conduction is the transfer of heat by direct contact of particles of matter. The transfer of energy could be primarily by elastic impact as in fluids or by free electron diffusion as predominant in metals or phonon vibration as predominant in insulators. In other words, heat is transferred by conduction when adjacent atoms vibrate against one another, or as electrons move from atom to atom. Conduction is greater in solids, where atoms are in constant contact. In liquids (except liquid metals) and gases, the molecules are usually further apart, giving a lower chance of molecules colliding and passing on thermal energy.

Heat conduction is directly analogous to diffusion of particles into a fluid, in the situation where there are no fluid currents. This type of heat diffusion differs from mass diffusion in behaviour, only in as much as it can occur in solids, whereas mass diffusion is mostly limited to fluids.

Metals (eg. copper, platinum, gold, iron, etc.) are usually the best conductors of thermal energy. This is due to the way that metals are chemically bonded: metallic bonds (as opposed to covalent or ionic bonds) have free-moving electrons which are able to transfer of thermal energy rapidly through the metal.

As density decreases so does conduction. Therefore, fluids (and especially gases) are less conductive. This is due to the large distance between atoms in a gas: fewer collisions between atoms means less conduction. Conductivity of gases increases with temperature. Conductivity increases with increasing pressure from vacuum up to a critical point that the density of the gas is such that that molecules of the gas may be expected to collide with each other before they transfer heat from one surface to another. After this point in density, conductivity increases only slightly with increasing pressure and density.

To quantify the ease with which a particular medium conducts, engineers employ the thermal conductivity, also known as the conductivity constant or conduction coefficient, k. In thermal conductivity k is defined as "the quantity of heat, Q, transmitted in time (t) through a thickness (L), in a direction normal to a surface of area (A), due to a temperature difference (ΔT) [...]." Thermal conductivity is a material property that is primarily dependent on the medium's phase, temperature, density, and molecular bonding.

A heat pipe is a passive device that is constructed in such a way that it acts as though it has extremely high thermal conductivity.

Transient Conduction vs. steady state conduction. Steady state conduction is the form of conduction which happens when the temperature difference is constant, so that an equlibration time, the spatial distribution of temperatures in an object does not change (for example, a bar may be cold at one end and hot at the other, but the gradient of temperatures along the bar do not change with time). There also exist situations wherein the temperature drop or raise occurs more drastically, such as when a hot copper ball is dropped into oil at a low temperature, and the interest is in analysing the spatial change of temperature in the object over time. This mode of heat conduction can be referred to as unsteady mode of conduction or transient conduction. Analysis of these systems is more complex and (except for simple shapes) calls in for the application of approximation theories.

Lumped System Analysis. A common approximation in transient conduction, which may be used whenever heat conduction within an object is much faster than heat conduction across the boundary of the object, is Lumped system analysis. This is a method of approximation that suitably reduces one aspect of the transient conduction system (that within the object) to an equivalent steady state system (that is, it is assumed that the temperature within the object is completely uniform, although its value may be changing in time). In this method, a term known as the Biot number is calculated, which is defined as the ratio of resistance to heat transfer across the object's boundary with a uniform bath of different temperature, to the conductive heat resistance within the object. When the thermal resistance to heat transferred into the object is less than the resistance to heat being diffused completely within the object, the Biot number is small, and the approximation of spatially uniform temperature within the object can be used. As this is a mode of approximation, the Biot number must be less than 0.1 for accurate approximation and heat transfer analysis. The mathematical solution to the lumped system approximation gives Newton's law of cooling, discussed below.

Even if the Biot number is not less than 0.1, analysis can be continued, but the accuracy of the result reduces. This mode of analysis has been applied to forensic sciences to analyse the time of death of humans. Also it can be applied to HVAC (heating, ventilating and air-conditioning, or building climate control), to ensure more nearly instantaneous effects of a change in comfort level setting.


Convection is the transfer of heat energy through a moving fluid at various temperatures. It is mainly a combination of diffusion and the bulk motion of molecules. When the mass of the fluid is in contact with a hot surface, its molecules expand and scatter, causing the mass of fluid to become less dense. When this happens, the fluid is displaced vertically or horizontally while the cooler fluid gets denser and sinks. Thus the hotter volume transfers heat towards the cooler volumes of that fluid.

There are two types of Convective Heat Transfer: • Natural Convection: is when the fluid motion is caused by the density variations that result from the temperature distributions in heat transfer and gravitational forces. These variations in density can be described by buoyancy forces (body of force proportional to density gradient), thus buoyancy is the driving force for natural convection. The change in density of the boundary layer while heating will cause the fluid to rise and be replaced by a cooler fluid. - Example: Transfer of heat from hot water to a radiator in a room • Forced Convection: unlike natural convection, forced convection is not related to the use of heat transfer between fluids but rather an external source such as pumps and fans. It creates an artificially induced convection current.

Internal and external flow can also classify convection. Internal flow occurs when the fluid is enclosed by a solid boundary such as a flow through a pipe. An external flow occurs when the fluid extends indefinitely without encountering a solid surface. Both these convections, either natural or forced, can be internal or external as they are independent of each other.


Radiation is the transfer of heat energy through empty space. All objects with a temperature above absolute zero radiate energy at a rate equal to their emissivity multiplied by the rate at which energy would radiate from them if they were a black body. No medium is necessary for radiation to occur; radiation works even in and through a perfect vacuum. The energy from the Sun travels through the vacuum of space before warming the earth. Also, the only way that energy can leave earth is by being radiated to space.

Both reflectivity and emissivity of all bodies is wavelength dependent. The temperature determines the wavelength distribution of the electromagnetic radiation as limited in intensity by Planck’s law of black-body radiation. For any body the reflectivity depends on the wavelength distribution of incoming electromagnetic radiation and therefore the temperature of the source of the radiation. The emissivity depends on the wave length distribution and therefore the temperature of the body itself. For example, fresh snow, which is highly reflective to visible light, (reflectivity about 0.90) appears white due to reflecting sunlight with a peak energy wavelength of about 0.5 micrometres. Its emissivity, however, at a temperature of about -5C, peak energy wavelength of about 12 micrometres, is 0.99.

Gases absorb and emit energy in characteristic wavelength patterns that are different for each gas.

Visible light is simply another form of electromagnetic radiation with a shorter wavelength (and therefore a higher frequency) than infrared radiation. The difference between visible light and the radiation from objects at conventional temperatures is a factor of about 20 in frequency and wavelength; the two kinds of emission are simply different "colours" of electromagnetic radiation.