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Thermal expansion is the tendency of matter to change its shape, area, and volume in response to a change in temperature.

Temperature is a monotonic function of the average molecular kinetic energy of a substance. When a substance is heated, the kinetic energy of its molecules increases. Thus, the molecules begin vibrating/moving more and usually maintain a greater average separation.

Unlike gases or liquids, solid materials tend to keep their shape when undergoing thermal expansion. The coefficient of thermal expansion describes how the size of an object changes with a change in temperature. Specifically, it measures the fractional change in size per degree change in temperature at a constant pressure.


When calculating thermal expansion it is necessary to consider whether the body is free to expand or is constrained. If the body is free to expand, the expansion or strain resulting from an increase in temperature can be simply calculated by using the applicable coefficient of Thermal Expansion.

Heat-induced expansion has to be taken into account in most areas of engineering. A few examples are:

Metal-framed windows need rubber spacers.
Rubber tires need to perform well over a range of temperatures, being passively heated or cooled by road surfaces and weather, and actively heated by mechanical flexing and friction.
Metal hot water heating pipes should not be used in long straight lengths.
Large structures such as railways and bridges need expansion joints in the structures to avoid sun kink.
One of the reasons for the poor performance of cold car engines is that parts have inefficiently large spacings until the normal operating temperature is achieved.
A gridiron pendulum uses an arrangement of different metals to maintain a more temperature stable pendulum length.
A power line on a hot day is droopy, but on a cold day it is tight. This is because the metals expand under heat.
Expansion joints absorb the thermal expansion in a piping system.

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