Tab Topics 3

Thermal Equilibrium

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One of the challenges students face is in understanding that heat transfer occurs from the warmer object to the cooler one, and stops when the two objects reach the same temperature. This reflects the condition that net heat transfer stops when thermal equilibrium is achieved. During thermal equilibrium, the two objects are the same temperature and transfer energy back and forth at the same rate, meaning that no temperature change occurs

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What the Textbooks Say

Most texts explain thermal equilibrium as part of the discussion of thermal energy or of types of heat transfer. The main ideas are

  1. heat energy moves only from warmer to cooler objects;
  2. net heat transfer stops when the two objects reach the same temperature; and
  3. heat energy is still being transferred between the two objects when thermal equilibrium is reached, even though the objects’ temperatures remain unchanged.

Sometimes students get the mistaken idea that an object can transfer all of its heat to another object.

See classroom activities related to Heat Transfer