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What is thermal conductivity?

Read this article to learn how to determine the rate at which heat conducts through a material.

What is thermal conduction?

Walking on bathroom tile in winter is annoying since it feels so much colder than the carpet. This is interesting, since the carpet and tile are usually both at the same temperature (i.e. the temperature of the interior of the house). The different sensations we feel is explained by the fact that different materials transfer heat at different rates. Tile and stone conduct heat more rapidly than carpet and fabrics, so tile and stone feel colder in winter since they transfer heat out of your foot faster than the carpet does.
In general, good conductors of electricity (metals like copper, aluminum, gold, and silver) are also good heat conductors, whereas insulators of electricity (wood, plastic, and rubber) are poor heat conductors. The figure below shows molecules in two bodies at different temperatures. The (average) kinetic energy of a molecule in the hot body is higher than in the colder body. If two molecules collide, an energy transfer from the hot to the cold molecule occurs. The cumulative effect from all collisions results in a net flux of heat from the hot body to the colder body. We call this transfer of heat between two objects in contact thermal conduction.

Image: The molecules in two bodies at different temperatures have different average kinetic energies. Collisions occurring at the contact surface tend to transfer energy from high-temperature regions to low-temperature regions. (Image Credit: Openstax College Physics)

What's the equation for the rate of thermal conduction?

There are four factors (k, A, delta, T, d) that affect the rate at which heat is conducted through a material. These four factors are included in the equation below that was deduced from and is confirmed by experiments.
start fraction, Q, divided by, t, end fraction, equals, start fraction, k, A, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction
The letter Q represents the amount of heat transferred in a time t, k is the thermal conductivity constant for the material, A is the cross sectional area of the material transferring heat, delta, T is the difference in temperature between one side of the material and the other, and d is the thickness of the material. These factors can be seen visually in the diagram below.
Image: Heat conduction occurs through any material, represented here by a rectangular bar, whether window glass or walrus blubber. (Image Credit: Openstax College Physics)

What does each term represent in the thermal conduction equation?

There's a lot to digest in the equation for thermal conduction start fraction, Q, divided by, t, end fraction, equals, start fraction, k, A, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction. Let's look at what each factor means individually below.
start fraction, Q, divided by, t, end fraction: The factor on the left hand side of the equation left parenthesis, start fraction, Q, divided by, t, end fraction, right parenthesis represents the number of start text, j, o, u, l, e, s, end text of heat energy transferred through the material per start text, s, e, c, o, n, d, end text. This means the quantity start fraction, Q, divided by, t, end fraction has units of start fraction, start text, j, o, u, l, e, s, end text, divided by, start text, s, e, c, o, n, d, end text, end fraction, equals, start text, w, a, t, t, s, end text.
k: The factor k is called the thermal conductivity constant. The thermal conductivity constant k is larger for materials that transfer heat well (like metal and stone), and k is small for materials that transfer heat poorly (like air and wood).
delta, T: The heat flow is proportional to the temperature difference delta, T, equals, T, start subscript, h, o, t, end subscript, minus, T, start subscript, c, o, l, d, end subscript between one end of the conducting material and the other end. Therefore, you will get a more severe burn from boiling water than from hot tap water. Conversely, if the temperatures are the same, the net heat transfer rate falls to zero, and equilibrium is achieved.
A: Owing to the fact that the number of collisions increases with increasing area, heat conduction depends on the cross-sectional area A. If you touch a cold wall with your palm, your hand cools faster than if you just touch it with your fingertip.
d: A third factor in the mechanism of conduction is the thickness d of the material through which heat transfers. The figure above shows a slab of material with different temperatures on either side. Suppose that T, start subscript, 2, end subscript is greater than T, start subscript, 1, end subscript, so that heat is transferred from left to right. Heat transfer from the left side to the right side is accomplished by a series of molecular collisions. The thicker the material, the more time it takes to transfer the same amount of heat. This model explains why thick clothing is warmer than thin clothing in winters, and why Arctic mammals protect themselves with thick blubber.

Why do metals feel both colder in the winter, and hotter in the summer?

Materials with a high thermal conductivity constant k (like metals and stones) will conduct heat well both ways; into or out of the material. So if your skin comes into contact with metal that is colder than your skin temperature, the metal can rapidly transfer heat energy out of your hand, making the metal feel particularly cold. Similarly, if the metal is hotter than your skin temperature, the metal can rapidly transfer heat energy into your hand, making the metal feel particularly hot.
This is why concrete will feel especially cold to our bare feet in winter (the concrete transfers heat out of our feet rapidly), and especially hot to our bare feet in summer (the concrete transfers heat into our feet rapidly).

What do solved examples involving thermal conduction look like?

Example 1: Window makeover

A person wants to replace the window on her house, but she doesn't want her heating and cooling bills to change. The original window on the wall of the house has area A and thickness d, and is made out of glass that has a thermal conduction constant k.
Which one of the following changes could be made to the window that would leave the rate of thermal conduction the same as the original window? (Select one)
Choose 1 answer:
Choose 1 answer:

Example 2: Window heat loss

A single-paned window in your house is 0, point, 65, start text, space, m, end text wide, 1, point, 25, start text, space, m, end text tall, and has a thickness of 2, start text, space, c, m, end text. The glass has a thermal conduction constant of 0, point, 84, start fraction, start text, J, end text, divided by, start text, s, end text, dot, start text, m, end text, dot, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, end fraction. Assume the outside temperature of the glass is a constant 5, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, space, C, end text and the inside temperature of the glass is a constant 20, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, space, C, end text.
How many start text, j, o, u, l, e, s, end text of heat are transferred out of the window in one hour?
Solution:
start fraction, Q, divided by, t, end fraction, equals, start fraction, k, A, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, s, t, a, r, t, space, w, i, t, h, space, t, h, e, space, f, o, r, m, u, l, a, space, f, o, r, space, t, h, e, space, r, a, t, e, space, o, f, space, t, h, e, r, m, a, l, space, c, o, n, d, u, c, t, i, o, n, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, start fraction, t, k, A, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, m, u, l, t, i, p, l, y, space, b, o, t, h, space, s, i, d, e, s, space, b, y, space, t, space, t, o, space, i, s, o, l, a, t, e, space, Q, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, start fraction, left parenthesis, 3600, start text, space, s, end text, right parenthesis, k, A, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, t, h, e, space, t, i, m, e, space, i, n, t, e, r, v, a, l, space, i, s, space, 1, start text, space, h, o, u, r, end text, comma, space, w, h, i, c, h, space, i, s, space, 3600, start text, space, s, e, c, o, n, d, s, end text, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, start fraction, left parenthesis, 3600, start text, space, s, end text, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 84, start fraction, start text, J, end text, divided by, start text, s, end text, dot, start text, m, end text, dot, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, end fraction, right parenthesis, A, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, p, l, u, g, space, i, n, space, t, h, e, space, k, space, v, a, l, u, e, space, f, o, r, space, t, h, e, space, g, l, a, s, s, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, start fraction, left parenthesis, 3600, start text, space, s, end text, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 84, start fraction, start text, J, end text, divided by, start text, s, end text, dot, start text, m, end text, dot, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, end fraction, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 8125, start text, space, m, end text, squared, right parenthesis, delta, T, divided by, d, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, t, h, e, space, a, r, e, a, space, i, s, space, start text, h, e, i, g, h, t, end text, times, start text, w, i, d, t, h, end text, equals, 0, point, 65, start text, space, m, end text, times, 1, point, 25, start text, space, m, end text, equals, 0, point, 8125, start text, space, m, end text, squared, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, start fraction, left parenthesis, 3600, start text, space, s, end text, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 84, start fraction, start text, J, end text, divided by, start text, s, end text, dot, start text, m, end text, dot, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, end fraction, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 8125, start text, space, m, end text, squared, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 15, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, right parenthesis, divided by, d, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, delta, T, equals, T, start subscript, h, o, t, end subscript, minus, T, start subscript, c, o, l, d, end subscript, equals, 20, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, minus, 5, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, equals, 15, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, start fraction, left parenthesis, 3600, start text, space, s, end text, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 84, start fraction, start text, J, end text, divided by, start text, s, end text, dot, start text, m, end text, dot, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, end fraction, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 0, point, 8125, start text, space, m, end text, squared, right parenthesis, left parenthesis, 15, start superscript, o, end superscript, start text, C, end text, right parenthesis, divided by, 0, point, 02, start text, space, m, end text, end fraction, start text, left parenthesis, t, h, e, space, t, h, i, c, k, n, e, s, s, space, d, space, m, u, s, t, space, b, e, space, i, n, space, m, e, t, e, r, s, comma, space, 2, start text, space, c, m, end text, equals, 0, point, 02, start text, space, m, end text, right parenthesis, end text
Q, equals, 1, point, 84, times, 10, start superscript, 6, end superscript, start text, space, J, end text, start text, left parenthesis, c, a, l, c, u, l, a, t, e, space, a, n, d, space, c, e, l, e, b, r, a, t, e, right parenthesis, end text

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Fatima
    i want a very specific and a very to the point definition of thermal energy. help me .
    (8 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Thermos
    Can you say that liquid water is a bad thermal conductor? I'm thinking that it often just eats the heat for itself (for example use it to to evaporate) instead of passing it down.

    Thanks!
    (5 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user yayvonne12
    Let's say there are 2 pieces of metal (copper and iron) which have different constants, k and they are put together. To calculate the rate of heat flow, is it still possible to use the formula as stated in the article?
    (5 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Yossathorn Tianrungroj
      I think that the formula can still calculate the "rate flow" at "a moment of time" because when the time pass the difference of temperature in two material will decrease and also the rate flow. BUT in the example2, they assumed that the temperature inside and outside the window remain constant even the heat was transferred. Sorry for bad English!
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nandana Vinod
    Generally good conductors of heat good conductors of electricity. Why so?
    Are electrons responsible for this?
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jignesh Patel
    Does this equation only work if the temperature on both sides remains constant?
    (4 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Swarna
      Nope. If temperature on both sides remain constant, there will be no thermal conductivity. [Don't mistake me. The formula does hold good for this case too!] The formula is meant to be used to find thermal conductivity and that generally happens when there are different temperatures. :)
      (2 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user Noah li
    but I'm still curious about what determine the temperature of atmosphere? The radiation of sun perhaps?
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Alex Sánchez
    So the sensation of something being hot or cold is simply the transfer of heat energy into or out of a system?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user zainab noor
    What happens to thermal conductivity of wall if its thickness is doubled?
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Sheryal
    What will be the effect on thermal conductivity of a wall if its thickness is doubled?Does it become half?or double?
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user nidhi bharadwaj
    how do dynamic and steady state of heat conduction differ from each other?
    (2 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Swarna
      As the name suggests, in a steady state, the temperature remains constant while in dynamic state, it does not.
      In a steady state, there is a rise only in the thermal conductivity while in a dynamic state, the internal energy changes too.
      (1 vote)