Heat Transfer Lab

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this experiment we'll be examining the thermal conductivity of different metals. By examining the rate of heat transfer we'll be able to identify thermal insulators and thermal conductors.


Research Question: Which material is the best thermal conductor?
Age: Middle school and up
Safety Concerns: This experiment uses a stove to heat water. Use potholders and get an adult to help you.
Time: 4 hours
Independent variable: Type of metal
Dependent variable: Time to reach thermal equilibrium
Control variables: Amount of water, container type, type of thermometer

While studying, you set your cup of coffee on the desk and start your problem set, but then forget about the coffee. When you come back, your coffee tastes cold. What happened? Everything in the world likes to be in balance, or equilibrium. Since your coffee had more heat than the environment, the heat moved from the coffee to the room, and your coffee got cold. The process of heat moving is called heat transfer. For more information on heat transfer, you can check out this lesson: Mechanisms of Heat Transfer: Conduction, Convection & Radiation

Some materials allow heat to transfer better than others. For example, the Styrofoam your coffee sometimes comes in is a great thermal insulator, meaning it doesn't transfer heat easily. Other materials are thermal conductors, which readily transfer heat. Today, we'll be testing which material can transfer heat from a warm cup of water to a cool cup of water most effectively.


  • Two 8 ounce Styrofoam coffee cups with lids
  • Kettle to boil water
  • Oven mitts
  • Two digital thermometers
  • 16 ounces of water
  • Scissors
  • 6'' of thick copper wire
  • 6'' of thick steel wire
  • 6'' of thick brass wire
  • Data table for each metal:

Time Temperature of Cup 1 (cold) Temperature of Cup 2 (Hot)


  1. Cut one extra hole in the center of each lid using the scissors.
  2. Next, fill one cup with 6 ounces cold tap water.
  3. Place the lid on top of the cup. Slide the thermometer through the hole you just cut. The hole you normally drink from will hold the wire later.
  4. Boil 6 ounces of water on the stove and pour it into the second cup.
  5. Place the lid on that cup and slide the thermometer in like you did for the first cup.
  6. Now, record the temperature of both cups in your data table at time 0.
  7. Bend the copper wire so it is in the water of both cups.
  8. Start recording the temperature of both cups every minute until they reach the same temperature.

Experiment setup

9. Repeat step 2-8 for each type of wire.


Achieving thermal equilibrium, where the cups are the same temperature, can take a while. Be patient and keep recording. Make sure the lids are sealed tightly to keep the heat in so heat can only be transferred through the wires.

Discussion Questions

Which type of wire allowed the cups to reach thermal equilibrium the fastest?

What do you think makes a good thermal conductor?

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account