Temperature change may not represent heat transfer; heat flux does.

May 4th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Figure 1 (go to simulation)
There has been some confusion lately about the heat transfer representations in Energy2D simulations. By default, Energy2D shows the temperature distribution and uses the change of the distribution to visualize heat flow. This is all good if we have only one type of medium or material. But in reality, different materials have different thermal conductivities and different volumetric heat capacities (i.e., the ability of a given volume of a substance to store thermal energy when the temperature increases by one degree; the volumetric heat capacity is in fact the specific heat multiplied by the density).

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Figure 2 (go to simulation)
According to the Heat Equation, the change of temperature is affected by the thermal diffusivity, which is the thermal conductivity divided by the volumetric heat capacity (now that I have written the terminology down, I can see why these terms are so confusing). In general, a higher thermal conductivity and a lower volumetric heat capacity will both result in faster temperature change.

To illustrate my points, Figure 1 shows a comparison of temperature changes in two materials. The pieces that have the same texture are made of the same material. The upper ones have a lower thermal conductivity but a higher thermal diffusivity. The lower ones have a higher thermal conductivity but a lower thermal diffusivity. In both upper and lower setups, the piece on the left side maintains a higher temperature to provide the heat source. Everything else starts with a low temperature initially. The entire container is completely insulated -- no heat in, no heat out. Two thermometers are placed just at the right ends of the middle rods. Their results show that the temperature rises more quickly in the upper setup (Figure 1) -- because it has a higher diffusivity.

The fact that something diffuses faster doesn't mean it diffuses more. In order to see that, we can place two heat flux sensors somewhere in the rods to capture the heat flows. Figure 2 shows the results from the heat flux sensors. Obviously, there is a lot more heat flow in the lower setup in the same time period.

Figure 3 (go to simulation)
The conclusion is that it is the heat flux, not the temperature change, that ultimately measures heat transfer. If you want to know how fast heat transfer occurs, the thermal conductivity is a good measure. However, if you want to know how fast temperature changes, the thermal diffusivity is a good measure. This may be also important to remember for those who use infrared cameras: Infrared cameras only measure temperature distribution, so what we really see from infrared images is actually thermal diffusion and thermal diffusion alone could be deceiving.

Figure 4 (go to simulation)
To make this even more fun (or confusing), let's replace the pieces on the right of the container with two pieces that are made of the same material that has a volumetric heat capacity between those of the other upper and lower ones. You wouldn't think this change would affect the results, at least not qualitatively. But the truth is that, the temperature in the lower setup in this case rises more quickly than the temperature in the upper setup -- exactly opposite to the case shown in Figure 1! The surprising result indicates how unreliable temperature change may be as an indicator of heat transfer. In this case, the temperature field of the middle rod is affected by what it is connected with. If we look at the results from the heat flux sensors (Figure 4), the heat flux that goes through the rod is much higher in the lower setup. This once again shows that heat flux is a more reliable measure of heat transfer.

In Energy2D, we have implemented an Energy Field view to supplement the Temperature Field view to remedy this problem.

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