Difference Between Conduction, Convection, and Radiation

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: June 12, 2023


Difference Between Conduction, Convection, and Radiation

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Have you ever observed the ocean breeze or static electric phenomenon during winter? Do you ever wonder how the sun’s energy reaches us after traveling such long distances in space? If you ever had these questions, you are at the right place!

All the above-mentioned phenomena occur due to the main concepts of heat transfer – conduction, convection, and radiation.

The earliest known observation of conduction was made by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BCE. He saw that rubbing a piece of amber with a cloth caused the amber to attract lightweight objects such as feathers, which we now know is due to the transfer of electrical charge through conduction. However, it wasn't until the 17th century that scientists began to study heat conduction.

The discovery of convection resulted from observations of natural phenomena such as ocean currents, weather patterns, and the behavior of combustion materials.

Lastly, the discovery of radiation came much later in the 20th century. The discovery of radiation is credited to the French physicist Antoine Becquerel. In 1896 while investigating the properties of a radiation mineral called uranium potassium sulfate, he discovered that the mineral emitted radiation that could penetrate through materials such as paper and expose photographic plates.

All these discoveries have now become a major part of our lives. Every technology uses these concepts in some or other ways to make our lives easier.

Conduction vs Convection vs Radiation

Conduction is the transfer of heat through a material without the motion of the material. For example, when you touch a hot cooking vessel, the heat is transferred to your hand through conduction.

 Convection is the transfer of heat through a fluid, like air or water, due to the movement of the fluid. For example, when you turn on an air conditioner in a room, the warm air is replaced and the cool air rises, creating a convection current that distributes heat throughout the room.

Difference Between Conduction, convection, and Radiation in Tabular Form

Parameters of ComparisonConductionConvectionRadiation
Mode of heat transferHeat transfer through direct contact with particles. The material of heat transfer is generally in a solid state.involves the transfer of heat energy by the movement of a fluid or gasRadiation involves the transfer of heat energy through electromagnetic waves.
Material propertiesA material is a good conductor of heat if it has high thermal conductivity.The convection coefficient determines the convective property of the fluid.Properties like emissivity, radioactivity, absorption, and transmissivity determine a radioactive material.
Rate of heat transferFast mode of heat transfer after convection.Fastest mode of heat transfer.Relatively slow mode of heat transfer.
The direction of heat flowHeat is transferred from high-temperature to low-temperature material.Heat is transferred from high-temperature to low-temperature material.Heat is radiated in all directions.
Medium for heat transferParticle contact. Solid medium.Fluids movement.No medium is required. Can travel through a vacuum space.

What is Conduction?

Conduction is one of the three modes of heat transfer and is the process by which heat is transferred from one object to another through direct contact. Conduction is the primary mode of heat transfer in solids, such as metals and ceramics, because the particles in these materials are closely packed together and can easily transfer heat through direct contact. In conduction, heat is transferred from a region of higher temperature to a region of lower temperature through a material medium. It is governed by the thermal conductivity of the material.

Conduction occurs when a material is heated, causing the molecules to gain energy and vibrate more rapidly. As these molecules collide with neighboring molecules, they transfer some of their energy to them, causing them to vibrate more rapidly as well. This transfer of energy continues until the entire material reaches thermal equilibrium, where the temperature is the same throughout.

Types of conduction:

Conduction can be classified into two types:

  1. Conductive Conduction: This is the most common type of conduction and involves the transfer of heat energy between two objects that are in direct contact with each other. This type of conduction occurs in solids, liquids, and gases.
  2. Convective Conduction: This type of conduction involves the transfer of heat energy between two objects that are separated by a fluid or gas. The fluid or gas serves as a medium for the transfer of heat energy. Convective conduction occurs in fluids and gases.
  3. Electron Conduction: In some materials, such as metals, the transfer of heat energy occurs through the movement of free electrons. These free electrons can conduct heat energy from one part of the material to another, like how electricity flows through a wire.

Thermal conductivity

You must have seen that different materials store heat differently, and heat transfer have defined the property of specific heat Cp as a measure of a material’s ability to store thermal energy. Likewise, the thermal conductivity k is a measure of a material’s ability to conduct heat. Thus, the thermal conductivity of a material can be defined as the rate of heat transfer through a unit thickness of the material per unit area per unit temperature difference. The thermal conductivity of a material is a measure of the ability of the material to conduct heat.  A high value for thermal conductivity indicates that the material is a good heat conductor, and a low value indicates that the material is a poor heat conductor or insulator.

Good conductors and bad conductors

Good conductors of heat are materials that allow heat to transfer easily from one part of the material to another. These materials have a high thermal conductivity.

Metals, such as copper, aluminum, silver, and gold, are excellent conductors of heat due to the high mobility of their electrons, which allows heat to be transferred quickly through the material. Other materials that are good conductors of heat include graphite, diamond, and some ceramics.

In contrast, bad conductors, also known as insulators, are materials that do not allow heat to transfer easily. Insulators have low thermal conductivity and are commonly used to reduce heat transfer. Examples of insulators include air, wood, plastic, glass, and rubber. These materials have tightly packed molecules, which reduces the ability of heat to flow through them.

Uses of Good Conductors:

Electrical wiring: good conductors such as copper and aluminum are commonly used in electrical wiring and power transmission because they allow electricity to flow efficiently.

Cooking: Good conductors such as copper and aluminum are used in cookware because they allow heat to be distributed evenly across the surface.

Industrial processes: good conductors such as metals are used in various industrial processes, such as welding, forging, and smelting because they can handle high temperatures and transfer heat quickly.

Heat exchangers: good conductors play a very important role in heat-exchanging devices like heaters, boilers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and many such thermodynamic devices.

Electronic devices: good conductors such as copper and gold are used in electronic devices to create electrical connections and transfer heat away from sensitive components.

Uses of Bad Conductors:

Insulation: Bad conductors such as air, plastic, and rubber are used as insulation in buildings and appliances to reduce heat transfer and improve energy efficiency.

Protective gear: Bad conductors such as rubber and plastic are used in protective gear, such as gloves and boots, to insulate against electric shock and heat.

Food storage: Bad conductors such as foam and plastic are used in food containers to keep food hot or cold by reducing heat transfer.

Overall, the properties of good conductors and bad conductors make them useful for a wide range of applications, from electrical wiring to insulation to cooking.

What is Convection?

Convection refers to transferring energy between a solid surface and a nearby moving liquid or gas. It occurs when conduction, heat transfer through direct contact, combines with the fluid's motion. The speed of the fluid's movement directly affects the amount of heat transferred through convection. While convection operates similarly to conduction, the key distinction lies in the medium involved in heat transfer.

Bulk motion in the fluid intensifies the heat transfer between the solid surface and the fluid. However, it also adds complexity to calculating the heat transfer rate.

There are two main types of convection: natural convection and forced convection.

Natural convection: This type of convection occurs when a fluid (such as air or water) is heated from below, causing it to expand and become less dense. The warmer, lighter fluid rises while the cooler, denser fluid sinks, creating a natural circulation pattern. This is the process that causes hot air to rise and cool air to sink, creating air currents and wind.

Forced convection: This type of convection occurs when a fluid is forced to move by an external source, such as a fan, pump, or compressor. This is commonly seen in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, where air or water is circulated using a fan or pump to distribute heat or coolness throughout a building.

In both natural and forced convection, the movement of the fluid enhances heat transfer by carrying heat away from the heat source and distributing it to cooler areas. This process is important for many industrial and natural processes, from cooking food to cooling electronics to regulating the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere.

Forced and natural convection has a wide range of practical applications in our daily lives, from heating and cooling buildings to cooking food to manufacturing processes. Here are some examples of their uses:

Uses of Natural Convection:

Atmospheric circulation: Natural convection drives the circulation of the Earth's atmosphere, creating weather patterns and wind.

Cooking: Natural convection is used in ovens and stoves to distribute heat evenly and cook food.

Solar energy: Natural convection is used in solar collectors to circulate water or air and transfer heat from the sun to a storage tank.

Ventilation: Natural convection is used in buildings to provide ventilation and control indoor air quality.

Uses of Forced Convection:

HVAC systems: Forced convection is used in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to circulate air or water and regulate temperature and humidity.

Electronics cooling: Forced convection is used to cool electronic components, such as computer processors or power amplifiers, to prevent overheating and extend their lifespan.

Industrial processes: Forced convection is used in various industrial processes, such as metalworking, chemical processing, and food production, to transfer heat and control temperature.

Automobile engines: Forced convection is used in automobile engines to circulate coolant and prevent overheating.

In both forced and natural convection, heat transfer is enhanced by the movement of the fluid, whether driven by an external source or buoyancy forces. This makes convection an important mechanism for managing temperature and energy transfer in a variety of settings.

What is Radiation?

The last mode of heat transfer is Radiation. Radiation is the process by which energy is transmitted through space or a medium in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles. The major difference between radiation and other forms of heat transfer is that radiation does not need any medium to transfer heat from one body to the other. Furthermore, it does not need temperature potential to transfer heat. Radiation can take many forms, including visible light, radio waves, X-rays, gamma rays, and others. all bodies radiate energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, infrared radiation, and even microwaves and radio waves, depending on the temperature and composition of the body. This phenomenon is known as thermal radiation and is caused by the random motion of particles within the body, such as atoms and molecules. The amount and wavelength of the radiation emitted depend on the body's temperature, with hotter bodies emitting more energy at shorter wavelengths.

Radiation has a wide range of uses in various fields, including:

  1. Medical diagnosis and treatment: Radiation is commonly used in medical imaging techniques like X-rays, CT scans, and PET scans to visualize the internal structures of the body and diagnose medical conditions. Cancer can also be cured by radiation therapy.
  2. Energy generation: nuclear power plants use controlled nuclear reactions to produce energy by producing heat, which is then used to generate electricity. This process involves the use of nuclear radiation.
  3. Food preservation: Radiation can be used to preserve food by killing bacteria and other microorganisms that can spoil food or cause diseases. This process is known as food irradiation.
  4. Industrial applications: Radiation is used in various industrial applications, such as the sterilization of medical equipment and supplies, detection of leaks in pipelines, and testing of materials for defects in quality checking.
  5. Scientific research: Radiation is used in scientific research for a wide range of purposes, like determining age of archaeological artifacts, analysis of chemical and biological samples, and study of the properties of matter.
  6. Space exploration: In space communication radiation technology is used for various purposes such as communication, navigation, and imaging.

Main Differences Between Conduction, Convection and Radiation (In Points)

  • Conduction heat transfer occurs when the atoms in a medium vibrate due to differences in temperatures. Convection occurs due to the actual motion of medium molecules when a temperature gradient is applied to them. While radiation occurs when a body generates heat and radiates it around itself.
  • Conduction and convection need a medium to transfer heat whereas radiation can happen in a vacuum medium as well.
  • Conduction and convection are comparatively safer modes of heat transfer whereas radiation can cause harm if not used carefully.


The three modes of heat transfer mentioned above govern a lot of applications in our life. May it be the cooling of sweat in summer due to fans or the creation of energy in nuclear power plants. Man has been using these principles since long ago, it is today that we are putting these principles into better use and advancing in technology.


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"Difference Between Conduction, Convection, and Radiation." Diffzy.com, 2023. Sat. 25 Nov. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-conduction-convection-and-radiation>.

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