Using computer simulations, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that heat may actually move better across interfaces between liquids than it does between solids. The findings, which were published online Oct. 11 in the journal Nano Letters, provide insights that could prove useful in fields ranging from computer chip manufacturing to cancer treatment.
Conduction is the movement of heat from a warmer substance to a cooler substance, as when a spoon heats up after sitting in a cup of hot soup. "Liquids generally have low thermal conductivity when compared to solids," says Pawel Keblinski, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer and coauthor of the paper. "For example, diamond is one of the best conductors around, with a conductivity of about 5,000 times that of water." Metals also tend to be good conductors, which is why the same spoon would normally feel cold to the touch -- it conducts heat away from the hand.
But this conventional wisdom refers only to "bulk" thermal conductivity, which occurs at the macroscale. In nanoscale materials, the conductivity across interfaces plays a major role. "Conductivity at the interface of two materials is controlled by the nature of the interaction between molecules," says Shekhar Garde, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer and also coauthor of the paper. "Even if the two substances are good conductors, the nature of the interface could affect heat transfer between them."
Garde and Keblinski performed molecular simulations of a variety of interfaces and found that thermal conductivity between liquid interfaces turns out to be surprisingly high.