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What is thermal energy?

Learn what thermal energy is and how to calculate it.

What is thermal energy?

Thermal energy refers to the energy contained within a system that is responsible for its temperature. Heat is the flow of thermal energy. A whole branch of physics, thermodynamics, deals with how heat is transferred between different systems and how work is done in the process (see the 1ˢᵗ law of thermodynamics).
In the context of mechanics problems, we are usually interested in the role thermal energy plays in ensuring conservation of energy. Almost every transfer of energy that takes place in real-world physical systems does so with efficiency less than 100% and results in some thermal energy. This energy is usually in the form of low-level thermal energy. Here, low-level means that the temperature associated with the thermal energy is close to that of the environment. It is only possible to extract work when there is a temperature difference, so low-level thermal energy represents 'the end of the road' of energy transfer. No further useful work is possible; the energy is now 'lost to the environment'.

Thermal energy from friction

Consider the example of a man pushing a box across a rough floor at a constant velocity as shown in Figure 1. Since the friction force is non-conservative, the work done is not stored as potential energy. All the work done by the friction force results in a transfer of energy into thermal energy of the box-floor system. This thermal energy flows as heat within the box and floor, ultimately raising the temperature of both of these objects.
Figure 1: Man pushing a box opposed by friction.
Figure 1: Man pushing a box opposed by friction.
Finding the change in total thermal energy delta, E, start subscript, T, end subscript of the box-floor system can be done by finding the total work done by friction as the person pushes the box. Recall that the box is moving at constant velocity; this means that the force of friction and the applied force are equal in magnitude. The work done by both these forces is therefore also equal.
Using the definition of work done by a force parallel to the motion of an object moving through a distance d:
W, equals, F, dot, d
delta, E, start subscript, T, end subscript, equals, F, start subscript, f, r, i, c, t, i, o, n, end subscript, dot, d
If the coefficient of kinetic friction is mu, start subscript, k, end subscript then this can also be written as
delta, E, start subscript, T, end subscript, equals, mu, start subscript, k, end subscript, F, start subscript, n, end subscript, d
Exercise 1a: Suppose the person shown in Figure 1 pushes the box, maintaining a constant velocity. The box has a mass of 100, space, k, g and moves through a distance of 100, space, m. The coefficient of kinetic friction between the box and floor is mu, start subscript, k, end subscript, equals, 0, point, 3. How much thermal energy will be transferred to the box-floor system?
Exercise 1b: When the person pushes on the box, they rely on friction between the soles of their shoes and the floor. Is there any change in the thermal energy of the persons shoes due to pushing on the box?

Thermal energy from drag

The force of drag on a moving object due to a fluid such as air or water is another example of a non-conservative force.
When an object moves through a fluid, some momentum is transferred and the fluid is set in motion. If the object were to stop moving there would still be some residual motion of the fluid. This would die down after some time. What is happening here is that the large scale motions of the fluid are eventually re-distributed into many smaller random motions of the molecules in the fluid. These motions represent an increased thermal energy in the system.
Figure 2 shows a system in which a thermally insulated water tank has a shaft suspended in it. Two paddles are attached to the shaft which is set to rotate on its axis. In this system, any work done in rotating the shaft results in a transfer of kinetic energy to the water. If the drive force is removed from the shaft after some time, there will still be some residual motion. However, the motion will eventually die down and result in an increase in thermal energy of the water.
Interestingly, a system similar to that shown in Figure 2 was used by James Prescott Joule (1818 – 1889), for whom the SI unit of energy is named. Using a paddle wheel submerged in a tank of whale oil and driven by falling weights he was able to determine the relationship between mechanical energy and heat. This lead to the law of conservation of energy and the 1ˢᵗ law of thermodynamics.
Figure 2: A paddle wheel rotating in a water tank.
Figure 2: A paddle wheel rotating in a water tank.
Exercise 2a: Suppose the paddle wheel depicted in Figure 2 is rotated by an electric motor which is rated at 10 W output power for 30 minutes. How much thermal energy is transferred to the water?
Exercise 2b (extension): If the tank initially contains 1, space, L of water at 10, degrees, C then what would be the water temperature after the motor is stopped and the water stops sloshing around?

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user WAJIH RIZVI
    I don't understand how random motions of molecules can cause thermal energy. Is it because the molecules rub against eachother and cause friction?
    (10 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user norin.omar
    If the object were to stop moving there would still be some residual motion of the fluid.
    i don't understand why or how it happened if there are a photo to help me for more explanation
    (5 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Leafarian
      When the paddle stopped turning, the water still spins around a little; it does not immediately stop moving. The residual motion is caused be the fact that water is a chain reaction. Once some of the water is pushed, that water pushed the water in front of it and so on. It takes a while for the reaction to lose all its energy to the environment and for the chain reaction to stop.
      (7 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Muskaan Maurya
    Can you state a difference between thermodynamics and conservation of energy in brief? Thank you.
    (4 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Andrew M
      Thermodynamics is the study of thermal energy and its movement from one place or form to another.
      Conservation of energy is a principle that informs the field of thermodynamics, along with all other fields of physics.
      (5 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Kevin Liu
    Is thermal energy due to friction considered internal energy?
    (5 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user jjain654
    For question 1a and 2a, why do they convert the units from Joules to kilojoules in the final answer? Is it wrong if we use Joules instead?
    (2 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user BlackBird
    What is specific heat?
    (3 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user vilde.myrhaug
    I remember learning about the basics of energy three years ago, and then I learned that the energy often goes into thermal energy, but also other forms like sound and light. However, here it said "All the work done by the friction force results in a transfer of energy into thermal energy", which is not exactly what I have learned before. Doesn't it make sense that some of the energy goes into other forms (like when you push something across the floor, it normally makes some sound)? Although I understand that this is a really tiny amount of energy, probably negligible, wouldn't it be wrong to say that All work is transferred into thermal energy?
    (4 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user geet sha
    if the box is moving at with constant velocity; then how can force of friction and the applied force are equal in magnitude. But for an object to move force of friction must be lesser than applied force.
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine seed style avatar for user Ty
      Therefore if you started the box off and kept it at a certain speed, at that certain speed, the forces of friction/drag are equal to the pushing force? I think that's right
      (2 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Noah Schwartz
    If you have an object sliding on an incline of length d, where the incline makes, say, an angle of theta with the horizontal, I would think that the change of thermal energy would be f * d = f*d*cos(phi), where phi is the angle between the displacement vector d and the friction force f. Since friction always moves opposite the direction of motion, phi would equal pi radians (or 180 degrees), so the change of thermal energy would be |-f*d| f*d.
    However, on the homework page I have, it says it's f*d*cos(theta) instead. I don't understand why the thermal energy depends on the horizontal component of the friction vector instead of the magnitude of it. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you.

    If it'll help, here's the question:
    A sled is being held at rest on a slope that makes an angle θ with the horizontal. After the sled is released, it slides a distance d1 down the slope and then covers the distance d2 along the horizontal terrain before stopping. Find the coefficient of kinetic friction μk between the sled and the ground, assuming that it is constant throughout the trip.
    Find the coefficient of kinetic friction μk.

    The answer is
    μk = (d1*sin(θ))/(d2+d1*cos(θ)), but I can't understand why it's not (d1*sin(θ))/(d2+d1) instead.

    Thank you again.
    (3 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Andrew M
      If the incline angle is theta, the normal force is mg*cos(theta). Force of gravity down the incline is mg*sin(theta). If you have an object sliding down an incline at constant speed, you can write F = ma = mg*sin(theta) = mu*mg*cos(theta). mg cancels out, a is zero, so you have sin(theta) = mu*cost(theta). Solving for mu gives sin(theta)/cos(theta)

      That's how cos ends up in the denominator. Your problem is a little different but still has to have cos in the denominator since the normal force has cos in it
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Emmanuel Chay
    So, is thermal energy kinetic energy? What is the relationship between thermal and kinetic energy?
    (1 vote)
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