Thermal Expansion/Contraction

in Physics

Thermal expansion takes place in solids, liquids, and gases when they are heated. With few exceptions, solids will expand when heated and contract when cooled. Because the molecules of solids are much closer together and are more strongly attracted to each other, the expansion of solids when heated is very slight in comparison to the expansion in liquids and gases. The expansion of fluids is discussed in the study of Boyle’s law. Thermal expansion in solids must be explained in some detail because of its close relationship to aircraft metals and materials.

Because some substances expand more than others, it is necessary to measure experimentally the exact rate of expansion of each one. The amount that a unit length of any substance expands for a one degree rise in temperature is known as the coefficient of linear expansion for that substance. The coefficient of linear expansion for various materials is shown in Figure 3-32.

Figure 3-32. Coefficient of expansion for various materials.

Figure 3-32. Coefficient of expansion for various materials.

To estimate the expansion of any object, such as a steel rail, it is necessary to know three things about it: its length, the rise in temperature to which it is subjected, and its coefficient of expansion. This relationship is expressed by the equation:

Expansion = (coefficient) × (length) × (rise in temperature)

If a steel rod measures exactly 9 ft at 21°C, what is its length at 55°C? The coefficient of expansion for steel is 11 × 10−6.

Expansion = (11 × 10−6) × (9 feet) × 34°
Expansion = 0.003366 feet

This amount, when added to the original length of the rod, makes the rod 9.003366 ft long. Its length has only increased by 4⁄100 of an inch.

The increase in the length of the rod is relatively small, but if the rod were placed where it could not expand freely, there would be a tremendous force exerted due to thermal expansion. Thus, thermal expansion must be taken into consideration when designing airframes, powerplants, or related equipment.