Dissemination of IT for the Promotion of Materials Science (DoITPoMS)


Origin of thermal expansion

The energy-displacement relationship for atoms in a solid is shown schematically below.

Schematic graph of energy against interatomic separation

Schematic depiction of the dependence of the potential energy of an atom within a solid on the inter-atomic spacing

As the temperature is raised, the amplitude of vibration increases. The asymmetrical nature of the potential well means that this is accompanied by an increase in the average inter-atomic spacing for longitudinal vibrations. The Coefficient of Thermal Expansion (CTE), or thermal expansivity, α , is the relative change in linear dimensions, per unit of temperature change. In general, ceramics have low thermal expansivities, metals higher and polymers higher still.

Thermal expansivity values for some selected engineering materials, along with some other material data, are given in this properties table.