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Thermal conductivity

In physics, thermal conductivity, k, is the property of a material that indicates its ability to conduct heat. It is used primarily in Fourier's Law for heat conduction.

It is defined as the quantity of heat, ΔQ, transmitted during time Δt through a thickness L, in a direction normal to a surface of area A, due to a temperature difference ΔT, under steady state conditions and when the heat transfer is dependent only on the temperature gradient.

thermal conductivity = heat flow rate × distance / (area × temperature difference)
k=\frac{\Delta Q}{\Delta t}\times\frac{L}{A\times\Delta T}
Alternately, it can be thought of as a flux of heat (energy per unit area per unit time) divided by a temperature gradient (temperature difference per unit length)
k=\frac{\Delta Q}{A\times{} \Delta t}\times\frac{L}{\Delta T}

Typical units are SI: W/(m·K) and English units: Btu·ft/(h·ft²·°F). To convert between the two, use the relation 1 Btu·ft/(h·ft²·°F) = 1.730735 W/(m·K). [Perry's Chemical Engineers' Handbook, 7th Edition, Table 1-4]



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. As shown in the table below, highly electrically conductive silver is less thermally conductive than diamond, which is an electrical insulator.

Thermal conductivity depends on many properties of a material, notably its structure and temperature. For instance, pure crystalline substances exhibit very 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, for which the CRC Handbook reports a thermal conductivity of 2.6 W/(m·K) perpendicular to the c-axis at 373 K, but 6000 W/(m·K) at 36 degrees from the c-axis and 35 K (possible typo?).

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 prevent large-scale convection. Examples of these include expanded and extruded polystyrene (popularly referred to as "styrofoam") and silica aerogel. Natural, biological insulators such as fur and feathers achieve similar effects by dramatically inhibiting convection of air or water near an animal's skin.

Thermal conductivity is important in building insulation and related fields. However, materials used in such trades are rarely subjected to chemical purity standards. Several construction materials' k values are listed below. These should be considered approximate due to the uncertainties related to material definitions.

The following table is meant as a small sample of data to illustrate the thermal conductivity of various types of substances. For more complete listings of measured k-values, see the references.

List of thermal conductivities

This is a list of approximate values of thermal conductivity, k, for some common materials. Please consult the list of thermal conductivities for more accurate values, references and detailed information.

Material Thermal conductivity
Air 0.025
Wood 0.04 – 0.4
Alcohols and oils 0.1 - 0.21
Soil 0.15
Rubber 0.16
Epoxy (unfilled) 0.19
Epoxy (silica-filled) 0.30
Water (liquid) 0.6
Thermal grease 0.7 – 3
Glass 1.1
Ice 2
Sandstone 2.4
Stainless steel 15
Lead 35.3
Aluminium 237
Gold 318
Copper 401
Silver 429
Diamond 900 – 2320


For good conductors of heat, Searle's bar method can be used.[1] For poor conductors of heat, Lees' disc method can be used.[2] An alternative traditional method using real thermometers is described at [3]. A brief review of new methods measuring thermal conductivity, thermal diffusivity and specific heat within a single measurement is available at [4]. A thermal conductance tester, one of the instruments of gemology, determines if gems are genuine diamonds using diamond's uniquely high thermal conductivity.

Standard Measurement Techniques

  • IEEE Standard 442-1981, "IEEE guide for soil thermal resistivity measurements" [5]
  • IEEE Standard 98-2002, "Standard for the Preparation of Test Procedures for the Thermal Evaluation of Solid Electrical Insulating Materials", ISBN 0-7381-3277-2 [6]
  • ASTM Standard D5470-06, "Standard Test Method for Thermal Transmission Properties of Thermally Conductive Electrical Insulation Materials" [7]
  • ASTM Standard E1225-04, "Standard Test Method for Thermal Conductivity of Solids by Means of the Guarded-Comparative-Longitudinal Heat Flow Technique" [8]
  • ASTM Standard D5930-01, "Standard Test Method for Thermal Conductivity of Plastics by Means of a Transient Line-Source Technique" [9]
  • ASTM Standard D2717-95, "Standard Test Method for Thermal Conductivity of Liquids" [10]

Related terms

The reciprocal of thermal conductivity is thermal resistivity, measured in kelvin-metres per watt (K·m·W−1).

When dealing with a known amount of material, its thermal conductance and the reciprocal property, thermal resistance, can be described. Unfortunately there are differing definitions for these terms.

First definition (general)

For general scientific use, thermal conductance is the quantity of heat that passes in unit time through a plate of particular area and thickness when its opposite faces differ in temperature by one degree. For a plate of thermal conductivity k, area A and thickness L this is kA/L, measured in W·K−1. This matches the relationship between electrical conductivity (A·m−1·V−1) and electrical conductance (A·V−1).

There is also a measure known as heat transfer coefficient: the quantity of heat that passes in unit time through unit area of a plate of particular thickness when its opposite faces differ in temperature by one degree. The reciprocal is thermal insulance. In summary:

  • thermal conductance = kA/L, measured in W·K−1
    • thermal resistance = L/kA, measured in K·W−1
  • heat transfer coefficient = k/L, measured in W·K−1·m−2
    • thermal insulance = L/k, measured in K·m²·W−1.

The heat transfer coefficient is also known as thermal admittance

Second definition (buildings)

When dealing with buildings, thermal resistance or R-value means what is described above as thermal insulance, and thermal conductance means the reciprocal. For materials in series, these thermal resistances (unlike conductances) can simply be added to give a thermal resistance for the whole.

A third term, thermal transmittance, incorporates 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 another synonym.

In summary, for a plate of thermal conductivity k (the k value [1]), area A and thickness L:

  • thermal conductance = k/L, measured in W·K−1·m−2;
  • thermal resistance (R value) = L/k, measured in K·m²·W−1;
  • thermal transmittance (U value) = 1/(Σ(L/k)) + convection + radiation, measured in W·K−1·m−2.

Textile industry

In textiles, a tog value may be quoted as a measure of thermal resistance in place of a measure in SI units.


The thermal conductivity of a system is determined by how atoms comprising the system interact. There are no simple, correct expressions for thermal conductivity. There are two different approaches for calculating the thermal conductivity of a system. The first approach employs the Green-Kubo relations. Although this expression is exact*, in order to calculate the thermal conductivity of a dense fluid or solid using this relation requires the use of molecular dynamics computer simulation.

  • The term exact is applied to mean that the equations are solvable.

The second approach is based upon the relaxation time approach. Due to the anharmonicity within the crystal potential, the phonons in the system are known to scatter. There are three main mechanisms for scattering:

  • Boundary scattering, a phonon hitting the boundary of a system;
  • Mass defect scattering, a phonon hitting an impurity within the system and scattering;
  • Phonon-phonon scattering, a phonon breaking into two lower energy phonons or a phonon colliding with another phonon and merging into one higher energy phonon.

Further information can be found in the publication "The Physics of Phonons" by G P Srivastava.

See also


  1. ^ Definition of k value from Plastics New Zealand
  • Callister, William (2003). "Appendix B", Materials Science and Engineering - An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons, INC, 757. ISBN 0-471-22471-5. 
  • Halliday, David; Resnick, Robert; & Walker, Jearl(1997). Fundamentals of Physics (5th ed.). John Wiley and Sons, INC., NY ISBN 0-471-10558-9.
  • TM 5-852-6 AFR 88-19, Volume 6 (Army Corp of Engineers publication)
  • Srivastava G. P (1990), "The Physics of Phonons." Adam Hilger, IOP Publishing Ltd, Bristol.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Thermal_conductivity". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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