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Heat, Temperature, and Thermal Energy Transfer

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Heat, Temperature, and Thermal Energy Transfer

The temperature of basalt lava at Kilauea (Hawaii) reaches 1,160 degrees Celsius (2,120 degrees Fahrenheit).   By way of its color, incandescent rock gives a crude estimate of temperature. For example, orange-to-yellow colors are emitted when rocks (or melt) are hotter than about 900 degrees Celsius.  Dark-to-bright cherry red is characteristic as material cools to 630 degrees Celsius. Faint red glow persists down to about 480 degrees Celsius. For comparison, a pizza oven is operated at temperatures ranging from 260 to 315 degrees Celsius.

Heat, Temperature, and Thermal Energy Transfer

The first theory about how a hot object differs from a cold object was formed in the 18th century.  The suggested explanation was that when an object was heated, an invisible fluid called “caloric” was added to the object.  Hot objects contained more caloric than cold objects.  The caloric theory could explain some observations about heated objects (such as that the fact that objects expanded as they were heated) but could not explain others (such as why your hands got warm when you rub them together).

In the mid-19th century, scientists devised a new theory to explain heat.  The new theory was based on the assumption that matter is made up of tiny particles that are always in motion.  In a hot object, the particles move faster and therefore, have greater kinetic energy.  The theory is called the kinetic-molecular theory.  Just as a baseball has a certain amount of kinetic energy due to its mass and velocity, each molecule has a certain amount of kinetic energy due to its mass and velocity.  Adding up the kinetic energy of all the molecules in an object yields the thermal energy of the object.

When a hot object and a cold object touch each other, the molecules of the objects collide along the surface where they touch.  When higher kinetic energy molecules collide with lower kinetic energy molecules, kinetic energy is passed from more kinetic energy molecules to less kinetic energy molecules.  In this way, heat always flows from hot to cold and heat will continue to flow until the two objects have the same temperature.  The movement of heat from one object to another by molecular collision is called conduction .

Heat is the energy that flows as a result of a difference in temperature.  We will use the symbol  Q for heat.  Heat, like all forms of energy, is measured in joules.

The temperature of an object is measured by the average kinetic energy of all the molecules of the object.  You should note the difference between heat and temperature.  Heat is the sum of all the kinetic energies of all the molecules of an object while temperature is the average kinetic energy of the molecules of an object.  If an object was composed of exactly three molecules and the kinetic energies of the three molecules are 50 J, 70 J, and 90 J, the heat would be 210 J and the temperature would be 70 J.

The terms hot and cold refer to temperature.  A hot object has greater average kinetic energy but may not have greater total kinetic energy.  Suppose you were to compare a milliliter of water near the boiling point with a bathtub full of water at room temperature.  The bathtub contains a billion times as many molecules.  Therefore, the milliliter would have a higher average kinetic energy but the bathtub would contain many times as much total kinetic energy.

Temperature Scales: Celsius and Kelvin

A thermometer is a device used to measure temperature.  It is placed in contact with an object and allowed to reach thermal equilibrium with the object (they will have the same temperature).  The operation of a thermometer is based on some property, such as volume, that varies with temperature.  The most common thermometers contain a liquid inside a sealed glass tube.  The liquid expands and contracts faster than the glass tube.  Therefore, when the temperature of the thermometer increases, the liquid volume expands faster than the glass volume and so the liquid runs up higher in the tube.  When the temperature of the thermometer decreases, the liquid volume contracts faster than the glass tube, and the liquid level goes down in the tube.  The positions of the liquid in the tube can then be calibrated for accurate temperature readings.  Other properties that change with temperature can also be used to make thermometers.  Liquid crystal colors and electrical conductivity are two common ones.

The Celsius temperature scale, based on the properties of water,  was devised by the Swedish physicist, Anders Celsius (1704 – 1744).  On this temperature scale, the freezing point of water was established as 0°C and the boiling point of water was assigned to be 100°C.  The kinetic energies between these two points was divided evenly into 100 “degrees Celsius”. 

The Kelvin or “Absolute” temperature scale is based on the temperature at which all molecular motion ceases.  This temperature is called absolute zero and is assigned to be 0 K.  This temperature corresponds to -273.15°C.  On the Kelvin scale, water freezes at 273 K and water boils at 373 K.  Since absolute zero is the coldest possible temperature, there will no negative values on the Kelvin temperature scale.  The relationship between Celsius and Kelvin temperature scales is given by:

K = °C + 273.15

Example Problem:  Convert 25°C to Kelvin.

Solution: K = °C + 273 = 25°C + 273 = 298 K


  • Adding up the kinetic energy of all the molecules in an object yields the thermal energy of the object.
  • Temperature is the average kinetic energy of the molecules.
  • Absolute zero is the temperature where molecular motion stops and is the lowest possible temperature.
  • Zero on the Celsius scale is the freezing point of water and 100°C is the boiling point of water.
  • The relationship between Celsius and Kelvin temperature scales is given by K = °C + 273.15.


The following video covers heat transfer. Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


  1. Which spoon melts the butter in the least amount of time?
  2. What is the relationship between temperature and molecular motion?
  3. Which has more heat, the match or the ice sculpture?

Heat and temperature practice problems and questions:



  1. Convert 4.22 K to °C.
  2. Convert 37°C to K.
  3. If you had beeswax attached to one end of a metal skewer and you held the other end of the skewer in a flame (using an insulated holder for your fingers), what would happen after a few minutes?
  4. Which contains more heat, a coffee cup of boiling water or a bath tub of room temperature water?

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