Thermal expansion

Expansion joint in a road bridge used to avoid damage from thermal expansion.

Thermal expansion is the tendency of matter to change its shape, area, and volume in response to a change in temperature.[1]

Temperature is a monotonic function of the average molecular kinetic energy of a substance. When a substance is heated, the kinetic energy of its molecules increases. Thus, the molecules begin vibrating/moving more and usually maintain a greater average separation. Materials which contract with increasing temperature are unusual; this effect is limited in size, and only occurs within limited temperature ranges (see examples below). The relative expansion (also called strain) divided by the change in temperature is called the material's coefficient of linear thermal expansion and generally varies with temperature.

Overview

Predicting expansion

If an equation of state is available, it can be used to predict the values of the thermal expansion at all the required temperatures and pressures, along with many other state functions.

Contraction effects (negative thermal expansion)

A number of materials contract on heating within certain temperature ranges; this is usually called negative thermal expansion, rather than "thermal contraction". For example, the coefficient of thermal expansion of water drops to zero as it is cooled to 3.983 °C and then becomes negative below this temperature; this means that water has a maximum density at this temperature, and this leads to bodies of water maintaining this temperature at their lower depths during extended periods of sub-zero weather. Also, fairly pure silicon has a negative coefficient of thermal expansion for temperatures between about 18 and 120 kelvins.[2]

Factors affecting thermal expansion

Unlike gases or liquids, solid materials tend to keep their shape when undergoing thermal expansion.

Thermal expansion generally decreases with increasing bond energy, which also has an effect on the melting point of solids, so, high melting point materials are more likely to have lower thermal expansion. In general, liquids expand slightly more than solids. The thermal expansion of glasses is higher compared to that of crystals.[3] At the glass transition temperature, rearrangements that occur in an amorphous material lead to characteristic discontinuities of coefficient of thermal expansion and specific heat. These discontinuities allow detection of the glass transition temperature where a supercooled liquid transforms to a glass.[4]

Absorption or desorption of water (or other solvents) can change the size of many common materials; many organic materials change size much more due to this effect than due to thermal expansion. Common plastics exposed to water can, in the long term, expand by many percent.