Understanding Metal and Steel Thermal Conductivity

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Understanding Metal and Steel Thermal Conductivity

metal steel thermal conductivity

There are several properties of a given metal that define its value and usefulness in various situations, and one such property is thermal conductivity. This term refers to how well a given metal is able to conduct heat – some metals see thermal conductivity stay the same when the temperature rises, while others see it increase.

At Wasatch Steel, we’re happy to detail the thermal conductivity properties of any of our steel products, from steel tube to steel bar and many others. Steel is generally considered to be fairly low on the thermal conductivity scale – let’s look at this scale and where various common metals rank, plus what this means about certain applications and which metals are best for them.

Metals and Thermal Conductivity

There are a few metrics that may be used to track thermal conductivity. One uses the British thermal unit, or BTU, combined with the time it takes for temperatures to return to normal ranges after heating of the metal in question – the higher the number, the higher the thermal conductivity. Using this metric, here is a basic ranking of common metals and their thermal conductivity:

  1. Copper: 223
  2. Aluminum: 118
  3. Brass: 64
  4. Steel: 17
  5. Bronze: 15

As this chart suggests, copper and aluminum are by far the two highest metals in terms of thermal conductivity. Steel and bronze, on the other hand, conduct very little heat. This is part of the reason why it’s so common to see copper or aluminum products used in electrical areas or those where heat is required to pass from one area to another without much heat loss; on the flip side, it’s why steel and bronze are often used for alternative applications where heat transfer is not desired.

Heat Exchangers and Heat Sinks

Two examples of products that won’t commonly be made from steel due to the above facts are heat exchangers and heat sinks. Both these items, used in several industrial applications, require high thermal conductivity to transfer heat for various water or gas systems, often for heating or even cooling needs. These kinds of products will almost always be made from copper or aluminum, as will household items like cookware that will contain copper in the bottom so they heat up quickly.

Low Conductivity Applications

On the other side of the coin, metals like steel with low thermal conductivity can be enormously valuable as well. While many items of home cookware will indeed have copper in their bases for quick heating, many will also contain stainless steel foundations that allow for cooling and simple cleaning when the job is done. In addition, steel’s resistance to heat makes it a perfect material for many high-temperature environments, such as plane or car engines or several other common industrial areas.

For more on thermal conductivity in metals and why it matters, or to learn about any of our steel services or products, speak to the pros at Wasatch Steel today.