Thermal Stresses

Thermal Stresses

Thermal stress is created when a change in size or volume is constrained due to a change in temperature.

Learning Objectives

Formulate relationship between thermal stress and thermal expansion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Thermal expansion is the change in size or volume of a given mass with changing temperature.
  • An increase in temperature implies an increase in the kinetic energy of the individual atoms, which will increase a solid’s size by a certain fraction in each dimension.
  • Thermal stress is created when thermal expansion is constrained.

Key Terms

  • stress: The internal distribution of force per unit area (pressure) within a body reacting to applied forces which causes strain or deformation and is typically symbolized by σ.
  • differential: A qualitative or quantitative difference between similar or comparable things.

Thermal Expansion

Thermal expansion is the change in size or volume of a given mass with temperature. The expansion of alcohol in a thermometer is one of many commonly encountered examples of this. Hot air rises because its volume increases, which causes the hot air’s density to be smaller than the density of surrounding air, causing a buoyant (upward) force on the hot air. The same happens in all liquids and gases, driving natural heat transfer upward in homes, oceans, and weather systems. Solids also undergo thermal expansion. Railroad tracks and bridges, for example, have expansion joints to allow them to freely expand and contract with temperature changes.


Thermal Expansion Joints: Thermal expansion joints like these in the Auckland Harbour Bridge in New Zealand allow bridges to change length without buckling. (credit: Ingolfson, Wikimedia Commons)

What are the basic properties of thermal expansion? First, thermal expansion is clearly related to temperature change. The greater the temperature change, the more a bimetallic strip will bend. Second, it depends on the material. In a thermometer, for example, the expansion of alcohol is much greater than the expansion of the glass containing it.

What is the underlying cause of thermal expansion? An increase in temperature implies an increase in the kinetic energy of the individual atoms. In a solid, unlike in a gas, the atoms or molecules are closely packed together, but their kinetic energy (in the form of small, rapid vibrations) pushes neighboring atoms or molecules apart from each other. This neighbor-to-neighbor pushing results in a slightly greater distance, on average, between neighbors, and adds up to a larger size for the whole body. For most substances under ordinary conditions, there is no preferred direction, and an increase in temperature will increase the solid’s size by a certain fraction in each dimension.

To be more quantitative, the change in length ΔL is proportional to length L. The dependence of thermal expansion on temperature, substance, and length is summarized in the equation

[latex]\Delta \text{L} = \alpha \text{L} \Delta \text{T}[/latex]

where ΔL is the change in length L, ΔT is the change in temperature, and α is the coefficient of linear expansion, which varies slightly with temperature.

Thermal Stress

Thermal stress is created by thermal expansion or contraction. Thermal stress can be destructive, such as when expanding gasoline ruptures a tank. It can also be useful, for example, when two parts are joined together by heating one in manufacturing, then slipping it over the other and allowing the combination to cool. Thermal stress can explain many phenomena, such as the weathering of rocks and pavement by the expansion of ice when it freezes.

Forces and pressures created by thermal stress can be quite large. Railroad tracks and roadways can buckle on hot days if they lack sufficient expansion joints. Power lines sag more in the summer than in the winter, and will snap in cold weather if there is insufficient slack. Cracks open and close in plaster walls as a house warms and cools. Glass cooking pans will crack if cooled rapidly or unevenly, because of differential contraction and the stresses it creates. (Pyrex® is less susceptible because of its small coefficient of thermal expansion. ) Nuclear reactor pressure vessels are threatened by overly rapid cooling, and although none have failed, several have been cooled faster than considered desirable. Biological cells are ruptured when foods are frozen, detracting from their taste. Repeated thawing and freezing accentuates the damage. Even the oceans can be affected. A significant portion of the rise in sea level that is resulting from global warming is due to the thermal expansion of sea water.

Metal is regularly used in the human body for hip and knee implants. Most implants need to be replaced over time because, among other things, metal does not bond with bone. Researchers are trying to find better metal coatings that would allow metal-to-bone bonding. One challenge is to find a coating that has an expansion coefficient similar to that of metal. If the expansion coefficients are too different, the thermal stresses during the manufacturing process lead to cracks at the coating-metal interface.

Another example of thermal stress is found in the mouth. Dental fillings can expand differently from tooth enamel. It can give pain when eating ice cream or having a hot drink. Cracks might occur in the filling. Metal fillings (gold, silver, etc.) are being replaced by composite fillings (porcelain), which have smaller coefficients of expansion, and are closer to those of teeth.