MadSci Network: Engineering

Re: What metal has the highest thermal conductivity?

Date: Fri Aug 27 18:15:54 1999
Posted By: Joseph Weeks, President, Thermal Products, Inc.
Area of science: Engineering
ID: 935611125.Eg

Heat is conducted in metals, according to current theory, by lattice waves, 
phonons, and free (or valence) electrons.  In a non-metal, heat is 
conducted only by phonons.  (A phonon is equivalent to one quantum of 
energy in the form of a thermoelastic wave of fixed frequency.  In this 
sense, a phonon is analogous to the concept of a photon in electromagnetic 
radiation theory.)  Because there are three methods of heat transport in 
metals, compared with only one in non-metals, one would expect that metals 
would be better conductors of heat than non-metals.
The transport of heat through a metal is affected by the structure of the 
metal.  A single pure crystal of metal will conduct heat much better than a 
large number of very small crystals because of scattering of the phonons at 
the crystal boundaries.  Likewise, if you alloy a metal, the differences in 
sizes of metal atoms will cause a large decrease in thermal conductivity.  
Mechanical damage to a metal structure by cold working or radiation will 
also decrease the conductivity of the metal.
Based upon these considerations, pure copper and silver have the highest 
thermal conductivity of the metals.  In 1923, a German named Schott 
measured the thermal conductivity of a single crystal of copper at 12,200 
Watts per meter Kelvin (W/mK) at a temperature of 20.8 K.  However, at room 
temperature, commercially pure copper typically has a conductivity of about 
387 W/mK.
The material with the highest thermal conductivity is the most pure, single 
crystal form of carbon, which we call a diamond.  When you want to verify 
if a diamond is real or not, thermal conductivity is an infallible method.
The thermal conductivity of diamonds is around 1200 W/mK.  As a result, 
there is interest in learning how to grow diamond films thick enough and 
cheaply enough to allow them to be used for thermal management.  Other 
materials with high conductivity are certain other forms of carbon, such as 
high purity graphite fibers and pyrolytic graphite.  As you might expect, 
both have very high chemical purity and large crystalline structures.

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