Heat transfer occurs at a lower rate in materials of low thermal conductivity than in materials of high thermal conductivity. For instance, metals typically have high thermal conductivity and are very efficient at conducting heat, while the opposite is true for insulating materials like Styrofoam. Correspondingly, materials of high thermal conductivity are widely used in heat sink applications and materials of low thermal conductivity are used as thermal insulation. The reciprocal of thermal conductivity is called thermal resistivity.
Thermal conduction is defined as the transport of energy due to random molecular motion across a temperature gradient. It is distinguished from energy transport by convection and molecular work in that it does not involve macroscopic flows or work-performing internal stresses.
In some solids, thermal conduction is anisotropic, i.e. the heat flux is not always parallel to the temperature gradient. To account for such behavior, a tensorial form of Fourier's law must be used:
In engineering practice, it is common to work in terms of quantities which are derivative to thermal conductivity and implicitly take into account design-specific features such as component dimensions.
thermal conductance = , measured in W⋅K−1. thermal resistance = , measured in K⋅W−1.
heat transfer coefficient = , measured in W⋅K−1⋅m−2. thermal insulance = , measured in K⋅m2⋅W−1.
The heat transfer coefficient is also known as thermal admittance in the sense that the material may be seen as admitting heat to flow.
An additional term, thermal transmittance, quantifies the thermal conductance of a structure along with heat transfer due to convection and radiation. It is measured in the same units as thermal conductance and is sometimes known as the composite thermal conductance. The term U-value is also used.
The dimension of thermal conductivity is M1L1T−3Θ−1, expressed in terms of the dimensions mass (M), length (L), time (T), and temperature (Θ).
Other units which are closely related to the thermal conductivity are in common use in the construction and textile industries. The construction industry makes use of units such as the R-value (resistance) and the U-value (transmittance). Although related to the thermal conductivity of a material used in an insulation product, R- and U-values are dependent on the thickness of the product.
Likewise the textile industry has several units including the tog and the clo which express thermal resistance of a material in a way analogous to the R-values used in the construction industry.
There are several ways to measure thermal conductivity; each is suitable for a limited range of materials. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of measurement techniques: steady-state and transient. Steady-state techniques infer the thermal conductivity from measurements on the state of a material once a steady-state temperature profile has been reached, whereas transient techniques operate on the instantaneous state of a system during the approach to steady state. Lacking an explicit time component, steady-state techniques do not require complicated signal analysis (steady state implies constant signals). The disadvantage is that a well-engineered experimental setup is usually needed, and the time required to reach steady state precludes rapid measurement.
In comparison with solid materials, the thermal properties of fluids are more difficult to study experimentally. This is because in addition to thermal conduction, convective and radiative energy transport are usually present unless measures are taken to limit these processes. The formation of an insulating boundary layer can also result in an apparent reduction in the thermal conductivity.
The thermal conductivities of common substances span at least four orders of magnitude. Gases generally have low thermal conductivity, and pure metals have high thermal conductivity. For example, under standard conditions the thermal conductivity of copper is over 10000 times that of air.
Of all materials, allotropes of carbon, such as graphite and diamond, are usually credited with having the highest thermal conductivities at room temperature. The thermal conductivity of natural diamond at room temperature is several times higher than that of a highly conductive metal such as copper (although the precise value varies depending on the diamond type).
Thermal conductivities of selected substances are tabulated here; an expanded list can be found in the list of thermal conductivities. These values should be considered approximate due to the uncertainties related to material definitions.
The effect of temperature on thermal conductivity is different for metals and nonmetals. In metals, heat conductivity is primarily due to free electrons. Following the Wiedemann–Franz law, thermal conductivity of metals is approximately proportional to the absolute temperature (in kelvins) times electrical conductivity. In pure metals the electrical conductivity decreases with increasing temperature and thus the product of the two, the thermal conductivity, stays approximately constant. However, as temperatures approach absolute zero, the thermal conductivity decreases sharply. In alloys the change in electrical conductivity is usually smaller and thus thermal conductivity increases with temperature, often proportionally to temperature. Many pure metals have a peak thermal conductivity between 2 K and 10 K.
On the other hand, heat conductivity in nonmetals is mainly due to lattice vibrations (phonons). Except for high quality crystals at low temperatures, the phonon mean free path is not reduced significantly at higher temperatures. Thus, the thermal conductivity of nonmetals is approximately constant at high temperatures. At low temperatures well below the Debye temperature, thermal conductivity decreases, as does the heat capacity, due to carrier scattering from defects at very low temperatures.
When a material undergoes a phase change (e.g. from solid to liquid), the thermal conductivity may change abruptly. For instance, when ice melts to form liquid water at 0 °C, the thermal conductivity changes from 2.18 W/(m⋅K) to 0.56 W/(m⋅K).
Some substances, such as non-cubic crystals, can exhibit different thermal conductivities along different crystal axes, due to differences in phonon coupling along a given crystal axis. Sapphire is a notable example of variable thermal conductivity based on orientation and temperature, with 35 W/(m⋅K) along the C-axis and 32 W/(m⋅K) along the A-axis. Wood generally conducts better along the grain than across it. Other examples of materials where the thermal conductivity varies with direction are metals that have undergone heavy cold pressing, laminated materials, cables, the materials used for the Space Shuttle thermal protection system, and fiber-reinforced composite structures.
When anisotropy is present, the direction of heat flow may not be exactly the same as the direction of the thermal gradient.
In metals, thermal conductivity approximately tracks electrical conductivity according to the Wiedemann–Franz law, as freely moving valence electrons transfer not only electric current but also heat energy. However, the general correlation between electrical and thermal conductance does not hold for other materials, due to the increased importance of phonon carriers for heat in non-metals. Highly electrically conductive silver is less thermally conductive than diamond, which is an electrical insulator, but due to its orderly array of atoms it is conductive of heat via phonons.
The influence of magnetic fields on thermal conductivity is known as the thermal Hall effect or Righi–Leduc effect.
Air and other gases are generally good insulators, in the absence of convection. Therefore, many insulating materials function simply by having a large number of gas-filled pockets which obstruct heat conduction pathways. Examples of these include expanded and extruded polystyrene (popularly referred to as "styrofoam") and silica aerogel, as well as warm clothes. Natural, biological insulators such as fur and feathers achieve similar effects by trapping air in pores, pockets or voids, thus dramatically inhibiting convection of air or water near an animal's skin.
Low density gases, such as hydrogen and helium typically have high thermal conductivity. Dense gases such as xenon and dichlorodifluoromethane have low thermal conductivity. An exception, sulfur hexafluoride, a dense gas, has a relatively high thermal conductivity due to its high heat capacity. Argon and krypton, gases denser than air, are often used in insulated glazing (double paned windows) to improve their insulation characteristics.
The thermal conductivity of a crystal can depend strongly on isotopic purity, assuming other lattice defects are negligible. A notable example is diamond: at a temperature of around 100 K the thermal conductivity increases from 10,000 W·m−1·K−1 for natural type IIa diamond (98.9% 12C), to 41,000 for 99.9% enriched synthetic diamond. A value of 200,000 is predicted for 99.999% 12C at 80 K, assuming an otherwise pure crystal.
The atomic mechanisms of thermal conduction vary among different materials, and in general depend on details of the microscopic structure and atomic interactions. As such, thermal conductivity is difficult to predict from first-principles. Any expressions for thermal conductivity which are exact and general, e.g. the Green-Kubo relations, are difficult to apply in practice, typically consisting of averages over multiparticle correlation functions. A notable exception is a dilute gas, for which a well-developed theory exists expressing thermal conductivity accurately and explicitly in terms of molecular parameters.
In a gas, thermal conduction is mediated by discrete molecular collisions. In a simplified picture of a solid, thermal conduction occurs by two mechanisms: 1) the migration of free electrons and 2) lattice vibrations (phonons). The first mechanism dominates in pure metals, and the second mechanism dominates in non-metallic solids. In liquids, by contrast, the precise microscopic mechanisms of thermal conduction are poorly understood.
The exact mechanisms of thermal conduction are poorly understood in liquids: there is no molecular picture which is both simple and accurate. An example of simple but very rough theory is that of Bridgman, in which a liquid is ascribed a local molecular structure similar to that of a solid, i.e. with molecules located approximately on a lattice. Elementary calculations then lead to the expression
For metals at low temperatures the heat is carried mainly by the free electrons. In this case the mean velocity is the Fermi velocity which is temperature independent. The mean free path is determined by the impurities and the crystal imperfections which are temperature independent as well. So the only temperature-dependent quantity is the heat capacity c, which, in this case, is proportional to T. So
with k0 a constant. For pure metals such as copper, silver, etc. k0 is large, so the thermal conductivity is high. At higher temperatures the mean free path is limited by the phonons, so the thermal conductivity tends to decrease with temperature. In alloys the density of the impurities is very high, so l and, consequently k, are small. Therefore, alloys, such as stainless steel, can be used for thermal insulation.
Heat transport in both amorphous and crystalline dielectric solids is by way of elastic vibrations of the lattice (phonons). This transport mode is limited by the elastic scattering of acoustic phonons at lattice defects. These predictions were confirmed by the experiments of Chang and Jones on commercial glasses and glass ceramics, where the mean free paths were limited by "internal boundary scattering" to length scales of 10−2 cm to 10−3 cm.
where t is the characteristic relaxation time. Since longitudinal waves have a much greater phase velocity than transverse waves, Vlong is much greater than Vtrans, and the relaxation length or mean free path of longitudinal phonons will be much greater. Thus, thermal conductivity will be largely determined by the speed of longitudinal phonons.
Regarding the dependence of wave velocity on wavelength or frequency (dispersion), low-frequency phonons of long wavelength will be limited in relaxation length by elastic Rayleigh scattering. This type of light scattering from small particles is proportional to the fourth power of the frequency. For higher frequencies, the power of the frequency will decrease until at highest frequencies scattering is almost frequency independent. Similar arguments were subsequently generalized to many glass forming substances using Brillouin scattering.
Each phonon mode can be split into one longitudinal and two transverse polarization branches. By extrapolating the phenomenology of lattice points to the unit cells it is seen that the total number of degrees of freedom is 3pq when p is the number of primitive cells with q atoms/unit cell. From these only 3p are associated with the acoustic modes, the remaining 3p(q − 1) are accommodated through the optical branches. This implies that structures with larger p and q contain a greater number of optical modes and a reduced λL.
From these ideas, it can be concluded that increasing crystal complexity, which is described by a complexity factor CF (defined as the number of atoms/primitive unit cell), decreases λL. This was done by assuming that the relaxation time τ decreases with increasing number of atoms in the unit cell and then scaling the parameters of the expression for thermal conductivity in high temperatures accordingly.
Describing of anharmonic effects is complicated because exact treatment as in the harmonic case is not possible and phonons are no longer exact eigensolutions to the equations of motion. Even if the state of motion of the crystal could be described with a plane wave at a particular time, its accuracy would deteriorate progressively with time. Time development would have to be described by introducing a spectrum of other phonons, which is known as the phonon decay. The two most important anharmonic effects are the thermal expansion and the phonon thermal conductivity.
Only when the phonon number ‹n› deviates from the equilibrium value ‹n›0, can a thermal current arise as stated in the following expression
where v is the energy transport velocity of phonons. Only two mechanisms exist that can cause time variation of ‹n› in a particular region. The number of phonons that diffuse into the region from neighboring regions differs from those that diffuse out, or phonons decay inside the same region into other phonons. A special form of the Boltzmann equation
states this. When steady state conditions are assumed the total time derivate of phonon number is zero, because the temperature is constant in time and therefore the phonon number stays also constant. Time variation due to phonon decay is described with a relaxation time (τ) approximation
which states that the more the phonon number deviates from its equilibrium value, the more its time variation increases. At steady state conditions and local thermal equilibrium are assumed we get the following equation
Using the relaxation time approximation for the Boltzmann equation and assuming steady-state conditions, the phonon thermal conductivity λL can be determined. The temperature dependence for λL originates from the variety of processes, whose significance for λL depends on the temperature range of interest. Mean free path is one factor that determines the temperature dependence for λL, as stated in the following equation
At low temperatures (< 10 K) the anharmonic interaction does not influence the mean free path and therefore, the thermal resistivity is determined only from processes for which q-conservation does not hold. These processes include the scattering of phonons by crystal defects, or the scattering from the surface of the crystal in case of high quality single crystal. Therefore, thermal conductance depends on the external dimensions of the crystal and the quality of the surface. Thus, temperature dependence of λL is determined by the specific heat and is therefore proportional to T3.
Thermal conductivity is usually described by the Boltzmann equation with the relaxation time approximation in which phonon scattering is a limiting factor. Another approach is to use analytic models or molecular dynamics or Monte Carlo based methods to describe thermal conductivity in solids.
Short wavelength phonons are strongly scattered by impurity atoms if an alloyed phase is present, but mid and long wavelength phonons are less affected. Mid and long wavelength phonons carry significant fraction of heat, so to further reduce lattice thermal conductivity one has to introduce structures to scatter these phonons. This is achieved by introducing interface scattering mechanism, which requires structures whose characteristic length is longer than that of impurity atom. Some possible ways to realize these interfaces are nanocomposites and embedded nanoparticles/structures.
Conversion from specific to absolute units, and vice versa
Specific thermal conductivity is a material property used to compare the heat-transfer ability of different materials to each other. Absolute thermal conductivity, however, is a component property used to compare the heat-transfer ability of different components to each other. Components, as opposed to materials, take into account size and shape, including basic properties such as thickness and area, instead of just material type. In this way, thermal-transfer ability of components of the same physical dimensions, but made of different materials, may be compared and contrasted, or components of the same material, but with different physical dimensions, may be compared and contrasted.
"Thermal conductivity λ is defined as ability of material to transmit heat and it is measured in watts per square metre of surface area for a temperature gradient of 1 K per unit thickness of 1 m". Therefore, specific thermal conductivity is calculated as:
- = specific thermal conductivity (W/(K·m))
- = power (W)
- = area (m2) = 1 m2during measurement
- = thickness (m) = 1 m during measurement
Again, since thermal conductivity and resistivity are reciprocals of each other, it follows that the equation to convert specific thermal conductivity to absolute thermal resistance is:
- , where
- = absolutethermal resistance(K/W, or °C/W).
The thermal conductivity of T-Global L37-3F thermal conductive pad  is given as 1.4 W/(mK). Looking at the datasheet and assuming a thickness of 0.3 mm (0.0003 m) and a surface area large enough to cover the back of a TO-220 package (approx. 14.33 mm x 9.96 mm [0.01433 m x 0.00996 m]), the absolute thermal resistance of this size and type of thermal pad is:
This value fits within the normal values for thermal resistance between a device case and a heat sink: "the contact between the device case and heat sink may have a thermal resistance of between 0.5 up to 1.7 ºC/W, depending on the case size, and use of grease or insulating mica washer".
In an isotropic medium the thermal conductivity is the parameter k in the Fourier expression for the heat flux
In the one-dimensional case q = H/A with H the amount of heat flowing per second through a surface with area A and the temperature gradient is dT/dx so
In case of a thermally insulated bar (except at the ends) in the steady state H is constant. If A is constant as well the expression can be integrated with the result
where TH and TL are the temperatures at the hot end and the cold end respectively, and L is the length of the bar. It is convenient to introduce the thermal-conductivity integral
The heat flow rate is then given by
If the temperature difference is small k can be taken as constant. In that case
List of thermal conductivities
Copper in heat exchangers
Heat transfer mechanisms
Interfacial thermal resistance
Laser flash analysis
Thermal conductance quantum
Thermal contact conductance
Thermal resistance in electronics
Thermal interface material