Heat Transfer – Conduction

in Physics

There are three methods by which heat is transferred from one location to another or from one substance to another. These three methods are conduction, convection, and radiation.


Heat transfer always takes place by areas of high heat energy migrating to areas of low heat energy. Heat transfer by conduction requires that there be physical contact between an object that has a large amount of heat energy and one that has a smaller amount of heat energy.

Everyone knows from experience that the metal handle of a heated pan can burn the hand. A plastic or wood handle, however, remains relatively cool even though it is in direct contact with the pan. The metal transmits the heat more easily than the wood because it is a better conductor of heat. Different materials conduct heat at different rates. Some metals are much better conductors of heat than others. Aluminum and copper are used in pots and pans because they conduct heat very rapidly. Woods and plastics are used for handles because they conduct heat very slowly.

Figure 3-27 illustrates the different rates of conduction of various metals. Of those listed, silver is the best conductor and lead is the poorest. As previously mentioned, copper and aluminum are used in pots and pans because they are good conductors. It is interesting to note that silver, copper, and aluminum are also excellent conductors of electricity.

Figure 3-27. Conductivity of various metals.

Figure 3-27. Conductivity of various metals.

Liquids are poorer conductors of heat than metals. Notice that the ice in the test tube shown in Figure 3-28 is not melting rapidly even though the water at the top is boiling. The water conducts heat so poorly that not enough heat reaches the ice to melt it.

Figure 3-28. Water as a poor conductor.

Figure 3-28. Water as a poor conductor.

Gases are even poorer conductors of heat than liquids. It is possible to stand quite close to a stove without being burned because air is such a poor conductor. Since conduction is a process whereby the increase in molecular energy is passed along by actual contact, gases are poor conductors.

At the point of application of the heat source, the molecules become violently agitated. These molecules strike adjacent molecules causing them to become agitated. This process continues until the heat energy is distributed evenly throughout the substance. Because molecules are farther apart in gases than in solids, the gases are much poorer conductors of heat.

Materials that are poor conductors are used to prevent the transfer of heat and are called heat insulators. A wooden handle on a pot or a soldering iron serves as a heat insulator. Certain materials, such as finely spun glass or asbestos, are particularly poor heat conductors. These materials are therefore used for many types of insulation.