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Thermal Conductivity of Metals: Which Metal Is the Best Conductor of Heat? (page 2)

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Author: Erin Bjornsson

Results:

Copper will transfer the most heat, followed by brass. Steel is the poorest conductor of heat.

Explanation:

Copper has the highest heat conductivity value, while steel has the lowest heat conductivity value. Heat conductivity is a really important property of a material—we need to keep it in mind when we’re deciding what we’re going to use the material for! Here’s an example: Because copper is such a great conductor, we use it for things like heating rods and wires. Because steel is a poor conductor and can withstand high temperatures, we use it to build engines in airplanes.

Think back to when we folded our wire bridges in half twice. Why do you think we did this? Remember: conduction happens best when more molecules are in contact with each other. Folding the rod in half twice allows the heat from the hot cup to travel through more molecules, allowing more heat to travel from the hot cup to the cold cup. Folding the metal rods only once will still create a good heat bridge, but we would see a smaller temperature change in the cold cups, making it harder to see which metal is the best conductor!

As for the volumes of water needing to be equal? To get good data from our experiment, each hot water cup needs to hold the same amount of heat, and water has a very specific heat capacity. Heat capacity is how much heat energy it takes to change the temperature of a given amount of a substance. Think about it this way: all four of our cups have equal volumes of water at the same temperature, so that means that each hot water cup holds the same amount of heat energy.

So when heat conducts away from the hot cup, does all of that energy go through the metal bridge and into the cold cup? Not at all. Heat is often lost to its surroundings, and in this case, some of the heat from the hot water will be lost to the air. Similarly, the air in the room will lose some of its heat to the cup of cold water. We tried to minimize heat loss by using Styrofoam cups, because Styrofoam is known to be a great insulator—a material that’s a poor conductor of heat.

Further investigation:

Feel free to repeat this experiment with other metals! Metals like silver, gold, and aluminum will give you very different results. Just make sure that you keep all of the other conditions of the experiment the same.

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