Thermal Energy, Temperature, and Heat

Related Posts

Two molecular drawings are shown and labeled a and b. Drawing a is a box containing fourteen red spheres that are surrounded by lines indicating that the particles are moving rapidly. This drawing has a label that reads “Hot liquid.” Drawing b depicts another box of equal size that also contains fourteen spheres, but these are blue. They are all surrounded by smaller lines that depict some particle motion, but not as much as in drawing a. This drawing has a label that reads “Cold liquid.”
(a) The molecules in a sample of hot water move more rapidly than (b) those in a sample of cold water. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Thermal Energy, Temperature, and Heat (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

Thermal energy is kinetic energy associated with the random motion of atoms and molecules. Temperature is a quantitative measure of “hot” or “cold.” When the atoms and molecules in an object are moving or vibrating quickly, they have a higher average kinetic energy (KE), and we say that the object is “hot.” When the atoms and molecules are moving slowly, they have lower average KE, and we say that the object is “cold”. Assuming that no chemical reaction or phase change (such as melting or vaporizing) occurs, increasing the amount of thermal energy in a sample of matter will cause its temperature to increase. And, assuming that no chemical reaction or phase change (such as condensation or freezing) occurs, decreasing the amount of thermal energy in a sample of matter will cause its temperature to decrease.

Most substances expand as their temperature increases and contract as their temperature decreases. This property can be used to measure temperature changes. The operation of many thermometers depends on the expansion and contraction of substances in response to temperature changes.

A picture labeled a is shown as well as a pair of drawings labeled b. Picture a shows the lower portion of an alcohol thermometer. The thermometer has a printed scale to the left of the tube in the center that reads from negative forty degrees at the bottom to forty degrees at the top. It also has a scale printed to the right of the tube that reads from negative thirty degrees at the bottom to thirty five degrees at the top. On both scales, the volume of the alcohol in the tube reads between nine and ten degrees. The two images labeled b both depict a metal strip coiled into a spiral and composed of brass and steel. The left coil, which is loosely coiled, is labeled along its upper edge with the 30 degrees C and 10 degrees C. The end of the coil is near the 30 degrees C label. The right hand coil is much more tightly wound and the end is near the 10 degree C label.
(a) In an alcohol or mercury thermometer, the liquid (dyed red for visibility) expands when heated and contracts when cooled, much more so than the glass tube that contains the liquid. (b) In a bimetallic thermometer, two different metals (such as brass and steel) form a two-layered strip. When heated or cooled, one of the metals (brass) expands or contracts more than the other metal (steel), causing the strip to coil or uncoil. Both types of thermometers have a calibrated scale that indicates the temperature. (credit a: modification of work by “dwstucke”/Flickr)

Heat (q) is the transfer of thermal energy between two bodies at different temperatures. Heat flow (a redundant term, but one commonly used) increases the thermal energy of one body and decreases the thermal energy of the other. Suppose we initially have a high temperature (and high thermal energy) substance (H) and a low temperature (and low thermal energy) substance (L). The atoms and molecules in H have a higher average KE than those in L. If we place substance H in contact with substance L, the thermal energy will flow spontaneously from substance H to substance L. The temperature of substance H will decrease, as will the average KE of its molecules; the temperature of substance L will increase, along with the average KE of its molecules. Heat flow will continue until the two substances are at the same temperature.

Three drawings are shown and labeled a, b, and c, respectively. The first drawing labeled a depicts two boxes, with a space in between and the pair is captioned “Different temperatures.” The left hand box is labeled H and holds fourteen well-spaced red spheres with lines drawn around them to indicate rapid motion. The right hand box is labeled L and depicts fourteen blue spheres that are closer together than the red spheres and have smaller lines around them showing less particle motion. The second drawing labeled b depicts two boxes that are touching one another. The left box is labeled H and contains fourteen maroon spheres that are spaced evenly apart. There are tiny lines around each sphere depicting particle movement. The right box is labeled L and holds fourteen purple spheres that are slightly closer together than the maroon spheres. There are also tiny lines around each sphere depicting particle movement. A black arrow points from the left box to the right box and the pair of diagrams is captioned “Contact.” The third drawing labeled c, is labeled “Thermal equilibrium.” There are two boxes shown in contact with one another. Both boxes contain fourteen purple spheres with small lines around them depicting moderate movement. The left box is labeled H and the right box is labeled L.
(a) Substances H and L are initially at different temperatures, and their atoms have different average kinetic energies. (b) When they contact each other, collisions between the molecules result in the transfer of kinetic (thermal) energy from the hotter to the cooler matter. (c) The two objects reach “thermal equilibrium” when both substances are at the same temperature and their molecules have the same average kinetic energy. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Matter undergoing chemical reactions and physical changes can release or absorb heat. A change that releases heat is called an exothermic process. For example, the combustion reaction that occurs when using an oxyacetylene torch is an exothermic process—this process also releases energy in the form of light as evidenced by the torch’s flame. A reaction or change that absorbs heat is an endothermic process. A cold pack used to treat muscle strains provides an example of an endothermic process. When the substances in the cold pack (water and a salt like ammonium nitrate) are brought together, the resulting process absorbs heat, leading to the sensation of cold.

Two pictures are shown and labeled a and b. Picture a shows a metal railroad tie being cut with the flame of an acetylene torch. Picture b shows a chemical cold pack containing ammonium nitrate.
(a) An oxyacetylene torch produces heat by the combustion of acetylene in oxygen. The energy released by this exothermic reaction heats and then melts the metal being cut. The sparks are tiny bits of the molten metal flying away. (b) A cold pack uses an endothermic process to create the sensation of cold. (credit a: modification of work by “Skatebiker”/Wikimedia commons)

Historically, energy was measured in units of calories (cal). A calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by 1 degree C (1 kelvin). However, this quantity depends on the atmospheric pressure and the starting temperature of the water. The ease of measurement of energy changes in calories has meant that the calorie is still frequently used. The Calorie (with a capital C), or large calorie, commonly used in quantifying food energy content, is a kilocalorie. The SI unit of heat, work, and energy is the joule. A joule (J) is defined as the amount of energy used when a force of 1 newton moves an object 1 meter. It is named in honor of the English physicist James Prescott Joule. One joule is equivalent to 1 kg m2/s2, which is also called 1 newton–meter. A kilojoule (kJ) is 1000 joules. To standardize its definition, 1 calorie has been set to equal 4.184 joules.

We now introduce two concepts useful in describing heat flow and temperature change. The heat capacity (C) of a body of matter is the quantity of heat (q) it absorbs or releases when it experiences a temperature change (ΔT) of 1 degree Celsius (or equivalently, 1 kelvin):

Heat capacity is determined by both the type and amount of substance that absorbs or releases heat. It is therefore an extensive property—its value is proportional to the amount of the substance.

For example, consider the heat capacities of two cast iron frying pans. The heat capacity of the large pan is five times greater than that of the small pan because, although both are made of the same material, the mass of the large pan is five times greater than the mass of the small pan. More mass means more atoms are present in the larger pan, so it takes more energy to make all of those atoms vibrate faster. The heat capacity of the small cast iron frying pan is found by observing that it takes 18,150 J of energy to raise the temperature of the pan by 50.0 °C:

The larger cast iron frying pan, while made of the same substance, requires 90,700 J of energy to raise its temperature by 50.0 °C. The larger pan has a (proportionally) larger heat capacity because the larger amount of material requires a (proportionally) larger amount of energy to yield the same temperature change:

The specific heat capacity (c) of a substance, commonly called its “specific heat,” is the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of a substance by 1 degree Celsius (or 1 kelvin):

Specific heat capacity depends only on the kind of substance absorbing or releasing heat. It is an intensive property—the type, but not the amount, of the substance is all that matters. For example, the small cast iron frying pan has a mass of 808 g. The specific heat of iron (the material used to make the pan) is therefore:

The large frying pan has a mass of 4040 g. Using the data for this pan, we can also calculate the specific heat of iron:

Although the large pan is more massive than the small pan, since both are made of the same material, they both yield the same value for specific heat (for the material of construction, iron). Note that specific heat is measured in units of energy per temperature per mass and is an intensive property, being derived from a ratio of two extensive properties (heat and mass). The molar heat capacity, also an intensive property, is the heat capacity per mole of a particular substance and has units of J/mol °C.

The picture shows two black metal frying pans sitting on a flat surface. The left pan is about half the size of the right pan.
Because of its larger mass, a large frying pan has a larger heat capacity than a small frying pan. Because they are made of the same material, both frying pans have the same specific heat. (credit: Mark Blaser)

Water has a relatively high specific heat (about 4.2 J/g °C for the liquid and 2.09 J/g °C for the solid)); most metals have much lower specific heats (usually less than 1 J/g °C). The specific heat of a substance varies somewhat with temperature. However, this variation is usually small enough that we will treat specific heat as constant over the range of temperatures.

If we know the mass of a substance and its specific heat, we can determine the amount of heat, q, entering or leaving the substance by measuring the temperature change before and after the heat is gained or lost:

In this equation, c is the specific heat of the substance, m is its mass, and ΔT (which is read “delta T”) is the temperature change, Tfinal − Tinitial. If a substance gains thermal energy, its temperature increases, its final temperature is higher than its initial temperature, Tfinal − Tinitial has a positive value, and the value of q is positive. If a substance loses thermal energy, its temperature decreases, the final temperature is lower than the initial temperature, Tfinal − Tinitial has a negative value, and the value of q is negative.

Related Research: Research Article: The Influence of a Metal Stent on the Distribution of Thermal Energy during Irreversible Electroporation


Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


Related External Link:

Thermal energy and the origin of life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.