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THERMAL

DIFFUSION

PURPOSE

The objective of this experiment is to study the process of thermal diffusion by experiment,
and verify the expected relationship.

THEORY

Last week we simulated the diffusion of mass by a one dimensional random walk.
Diffusion of heat (as observed by temperature) works in the same fashion as mass diffusion.
After all, heat is just random thermal motion, so if some molecules bang into others, the
subsequent motion, even within a solid, is due to random vibrations. Thermal energy
diffusion thus behaves just like diffusion of a gas. Temperature change due to conduction
will spread like the square root of t (remember last week?) This characteristic—that some
types of motion depend on the square root of time—is a hallmark of diffusion and so
conversely, when phenomena are observed to follow such a √t law it is considered to be a
strong indicator of random motion, whether the movement of bacteria, the change in
length of polymers, or the variation of population (to give some biological examples.)

To observe thermal diffusion in this lab, we will watch heat travel along a rod. If you
change the temperature of a long rod at one end by ∆To, then the temperature change at an
point x along the rod, at a time t, will be denoted by ∆T(x,t). Diffusion of heat can be shown
to yield this equation for ∆T(x,t) :
⎛ ⎛ x ⎞⎞
ΔT (x, t) = ΔTo ⎜ 1 − erf ⎜
⎝ ⎝ 2 κ t ⎟⎠ ⎟⎠
κ is the thermal diffusivity and erf is a function, like a sin, cos, exp, or log. erf stands for
“error function”. If you imagine a normal gaussian curve of error, as shown below, the erf
is the area under that curve, taken out to the same distance + and – from the peak, as
illustrated by the shaded region below. So erf(0) is 0 because we didn’t go any distance out
from the center when computing the area. As we
make the argument of erf bigger, the erf goes to 1,
because we now include all the area. Excel has
this function built in. To get erf(1.5), for example,
one can just write =ERF(1.5) in a cell in Excel and
the value is returned.

The interesting thing about our equation is the
inverse square root of time that turns up in the
denominator. This √t behavior, characteristic of
diffusion, creates a long, slow tail. (It is notably
longer than an exponential tail, for example.) The observation of this characteristic time
behavior is the object of this part of the lab.

DIFFUSION LAB 1
In this lab therefore we will do two things. (1) We will use a simple simulation to emulate
a one dimensional random walk, to test the square-root of time dependence. (2) We will
use heat conduction along a rod to test the same square-root of time dependence.

PROCEDURE

We are making the problem one-dimensional by watching heat diffuse down a long rod.
For various reasons of convenience in setup, we are going to watch heat diffuse out of the
rod, but, whether out or in, the mathematics and physics is the same. We are covering the
rod with insulation because an exposed rod would not only transport heat along its length,
it would lose heat out the sides.

We are going to cool the rod by putting it in contact with an ice bath, so that we know the
starting temperature is 0°C. Well, the water is at 0, but the ice is actually colder, so we
want to trap the ice so only water contacts the rod. So we will use an aluminum plate with
holes to keep the ice below the surface and away from contacting the rod.

Put ice into the aluminum container about ¾ full, then secure the plate that traps the ice.
Finally, pour water into the container till the water is almost at the top.

The temperature on the rod is going to be measured on a device called a “thermistor”,
which is short for a thermal resistor. We have not covered resistors yet, but you don’t
need to know about them to use one. It is hooked into device known as a multimeter, and
you are going to set it to measure resistance (which is measured in ohms, greek letter Ω) .
What you need to know is that when temperature changes, the number of ohms will change
on the meter. The lower the T, the higher the resistance R. Plug the thermistor into the
meter, and be sure the meter is set to read resistance. The two plugs are equivalent—you
can’t hook it up “backwards”. You should see a steady reading of around 3000 Ω, or, on a
kΩ scale, 3.00. Hold the probe in your fingers and it should respond to body temperature
by dropping, eventually to around 2 kΩ, roughly. (If nothing happens when you hold it,
check that the plugs and settings are right!) Record the resistance when the thermistor is in
the room air (“room temp”) and the value you read from a standard thermometer.
Calculate the expected value of R from this equation:

R = 0.0019T2 - 0.1557T + 5.6484

Compare it with what you measured. Compute the correction ratio as
R(actual)/R(expected). Save this number for analysis below.

Now, very carefully touch the thermistor to the top of the ice water surface. Do not
immerse it! You just want the black tip in the water. While one of you does this, avoiding
immersion, someone else should read the resistance. This is your zero degree value.

Now insert the thermistor into the aluminum rod, in the hole drilled for this purpose. The
hole should line up with the slit in the insulation. When you insert the thermistor, let the
foam insulation just secure it in place. The value should be very close if not identical to the

DIFFUSION LAB 2
one you got with the thermistor in air. The rod should only extend about 0.5 cm out of the
bottom of the insulation. Position the rod (by moving the clamp) so the exposed end is
above the aluminum container and can be inserted in the next step—but read it first.
Because diffusion is slow, it is hard to “redo” the experiment if you mess something up.

One of you will need to start a stopwatch in a moment, so he or she should be ready.
When the timer is ready to go, lower the rod into the water so the exposed 0.5 cm is in the
water. The actual amount immersed is not all that important, but it is critical is that when
the end goes into the cold water, the timer gets turned on, since that is when cooling begins.

As the rod cools, and the resistance increases, we want you to note each time that the
resistance increases by 0.1 kΩ. In other words, you put the rod into the water and the
thermistor reads 3.00 kΩ (say). Next you write down the time when it reads 3.10, and then
the time when it got to 3.20, etc. DO NOT STOP THE WATCH. Just keep recording. The
first few points come very quickly—the later ones are agonizingly slow. Take data for

Begin an Excel spreadsheet during the run. You will have plenty of time to do this, so don’t
rush at the beginning when the data values are coming fast.

Row 1 is going to be devoted to labels. Data is entered in Row 2.

Col A is the time in stopwatch MINUTES.
Col B is the time in stopwatch seconds.
A and B are directly what you read off the stopwatch.
Col C is the resistance R exactly as you read it.

Col D is going to be the corrected R. Take your measured value in Col C and multiply it by
the correction factor you got above.

Col E is the temperature (in °C), after conversion from the corrected value of R. Write the
formula

= -0.6484*D2^3 + 9.8296*D2^2 - 56.685*D2 + 123.28

and fill it down. This equation is from a calibration done previously.

Col F is the initial temperature. It’s a constant, whatever you measured at the start.

Col G is the total time in sec. So you will write the formula =A2*60+B2. You will fill this
formula down.

DIFFUSION LAB 3
Col H is the net change in temperature, ∆T. For simplicity, we will keep the values positive,
and you may interpret it as the amount that the temperature dropped. The formula for
Col H is

=F2-E2.

Once you have all your data, make a graph (scatter plot) of ∆T as a function of t, which will
be col G as the x axis, and col H as y.

Now to compare it with the prediction:

col I is a repeat of time. Do this in I2 by writing
= G2 ,
and fill down.
col J is the theory. Write it this way
=Amp*(1-ERF(xoverkappa/SQRT(I2)))
and fill down.

Excel is unhappy with you at this point because you have introduced two constants, Amp,
and xoverkappa, that have not been defined as names. But we are about to do that.
We need a place to put these values. Let’s put them below your data. Say row 30.
So in A30 put the maximum temperature change. That’s basically your initial temperature.
Go up to the menu bar under INSERT and go down to NAME, and pick the choice DEFINE.
Define it as Amp. This now refers to this cell, A30, any time the variable Amp turns up.
Next to it (B30) write “max” to remind you of what this is.
In A31, put a number around 8. Again go to INSERT, go down to NAME, and DEFINE this a
the variable xoverkappa. Col J should now light up with actual numbers! In B31 you may
want to also remind yourself what the variable is in A31.

from Col J. You should see the theory curve. You can make it more distinct by using lines
and not points.

What you want to do at this point is to vary the value of A31, the xoverkappa value. Each
time you change the value, you will see your graph change. The idea is to get the value of
A31 that makes the theory and data agree best. If there are thermal leaks that are
significant, you may also have to vary the value of max. Check with your instructor.

What we want you to observe is the extended tail in time, which the data (we hope!)
displays and the theory predicts.

How would you use this to determine κ, the thermal diffusivity?

DIFFUSION LAB 4