Heat Transfer - Overview


Heat is defined in physics as the transfer of thermal energy across a well-defined boundary around a thermodynamic system. It is a characteristic of a process and is not statically contained in matter. In engineering contexts, however, the term heat transfer has acquired a specific usage, despite its literal redundancy of the characterization of transfer. In these contexts, heat is taken as synonymous to thermal energy. This usage has its origin in the historical interpretation of heat as a fluid (caloric) that can be transferred by various causes, and that is also common in the language of laymen and everyday life.

Fundamental methods of heat transfer in engineering include conduction, convection, and radiation. Physical laws describe the behavior and characteristics of each of these methods. Real systems often exhibit a complicated combination of them. Heat transfer methods are used in numerous disciplines, such as automotive engineering, thermal management of electronic devices and systems, climate control, insulation, materials processing, and power plant engineering.

Various mathematical methods have been developed to solve or approximate the results of heat transfer in systems. Heat transfer is a path function (or process quantity), as opposed to a state quantity; therefore, the amount of heat transferred in a thermodynamic process that changes the state of a system depends on how that process occurs, not only the net difference between the initial and final states of the process. Heat flux is a quantitative, vectorial representation of the heat flow through a surface.

Heat transfer is typically studied as part of a general chemical engineering or mechanical engineering curriculum. Typically, thermodynamics is a prerequisite for heat transfer courses, as the laws of thermodynamics are essential to the mechanism of heat transfer. Other courses related to heat transfer include energy conversion, thermofluids, and mass transfer.

The transport equations for thermal energy (Fourier's law), mechanical momentum (Newton's law for fluids), and mass transfer (Fick's laws of diffusion) are similar and analogies among these three transport processes have been developed to facilitate prediction of conversion from any one to the others.

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