I have read this question which seems to ask an identical question, but I'm not sure - it had far too many words I don't understand, let alone the equations. Perhaps someone can answer with a heat-for-dummies answer.

I understand that given thermal conductivity, and thermal mass, it takes a while for heat applied to one end of a material to make the other side rise in temperature. Like for a heat sink for electronics, with the component dissipating a constant power, and the ambient temperature staying constant, a thermal gradient will develop until it reaches an equilibrium, where the power dissipated by the electronic component equals the power dissipated by the heat sink to the ambient environment.

But my question is: say the heat sink is exactly at ambient temperature. And say the electronic component instantly starts dissipating to the heatsink a given power. How long would it take for the heatsink to start dissipating even the smallest amount of power to the environment? My guess is it would be equal to the speed of the molecules' vibrations that is otherwise known as heat.

Or perhaps at the speed of light, since thermal radiation would penetrate the material, even if it is very, very little.

I hope this makes sense?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In pure materials like semiconductors heat travels at the speed of sound, so with a sufficiently fast sensor one can detect it very quickly, having said that, this can only be measured at very low temperature with so called phonon spectroscopy, but in practice you will notice that semiconductors like silicon do transport heat differently than metals, even to the touch. In practice most heat sinks work by convection, so the full effect of a passive heat sink doesn't even set in until it's near the design temperature and the convection current has been excited in the air by $\Delta T$. $\endgroup$
    – CuriousOne
    Jun 11, 2015 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ This depends enormously on the material and temperature gradient. You cannot give a single velocity with which the temperature travels. At low temperatures there will be ballistic heat transport with the speed of sound as suggested by @CuriousOne, at room temperature this will not happen due to scattering processes between phonons (and phonons, and electrons, and impurities, ...). The way to describe it is the heat equation. Which gives the (unphysical) answer, that minute amounts of heat travel infinetly fast by conduction (but gives the correct results on larger timescales). $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2015 at 15:26

3 Answers 3


The problem is quite complex to solve quantitatively and requires a differential calculus of multi-variable functions, but I'll try to simplify it.

Imagine that the object consist of many thin slices across the temperature gradient. Every second slice is a heat container with heat capacity $c \left[ \frac{J}{K}\right]$ and the remaining are heat conductors of a heat conductivity $h \left[ \frac{W}{K}\right]$ (just to separate two effects -- conductivity and capacity)

layers of conductor

A the first instant all layers are at an ambient temperature. When you touch left side of the conductor, heat starts flowing, but the object is not at the equilibrium.

Heat flows into segment $A$ at the rate: $$P_{A\,in}=h(T_{left}-T_A)$$ And the temperature of $A$ starts increasing. $$\frac{dT_A}{dt} = \frac{P_{A\,in}-P_{A\,out}}{c}$$ When $T_A$ is just slightly over the ambient temperature it starts giving heat out to segment $B$ $$P_{A\,out}=P_{B\,in}=h(T_A-T_B)$$ And the temperature of $B$ starts rising which affects segment $C$, and so on. This process continues until temperature gradient is established and heat absorbed and dissipated are equal.

The speed ot this process depends on density of the material, heat capacity, thickness, surface area, conductivity and much more. Although the process starts immediately, it takes some time until it becomes observable. In this case radiation does not contribute much to energy transfer since most conductors are opaque. Heat is mainly transferred through the collisions of the molecules.

I can show you derivation of temperature function for a single segment $A$ to illustrate the whole process. $$P_{in}=h(T_{left}-T)$$ $$P_{out}=h(T-T_{amb})$$ $$\frac{dT}{dt} = \frac{P_{in}-P_{out}}{c} = \frac{h}{c}(T_{left}-2T+T_{amb})$$ $$\frac{dT}{T_{left}-2T+T_{amb}} = \frac{h}{c}dt$$ Solving this differential equation we obtain: $$\frac{\ln(-2T+T_{left}+T_{amb})}{-2} = \frac{h}{c}t + C$$ Which, after some transformations, gives: $$T = A \exp\left(\frac{-2h}{c}t\right)+\frac{1}{2}(T_{left}+T_{amb})$$ Where $A$ depends on initial conditions. In this case it is: $$A=\frac{1}{2}(T_{amb}-T_{left})$$

You may notice, that for $t=0$, $T=T_{amb}$; and, after very long time, when equilibrium is established, $T$ is just between $T_{left}$ and $T_{amb}$.


I think the average velocity can be estimated from the average time required to move distance L: $$t = L^2/2\alpha$$ where $\alpha$ is the thermal conductivity (k) divided by heat capacity (C).

Since velocity (u) is distance/time:

$$ u = L/(L^2/2\alpha) = 2\alpha/L $$

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is pretty sparse on the detains, and it is not clear that the OP wants an 'average' time. Consider fleshing out, and please use MathJax for the equations. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 14, 2016 at 20:38

At near the speed of light. The same maxwells equations that describe the conduction of electric discribe the conduction of thermal energy.


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