Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Heat and Thermal Energy
Name: Neil S.
Status: student
Age: 17
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2001

What is the difference between heat and thermal energy?

As loosely used, I think the two are equivalent.

The first law of thermodynamics divides the internal energy change of a system, denoted, dE as the sum of the heat input/output, denoted dq, and the work input/output, denoted, dw. So,

dE = dq + dw

where, inputs are positive and outputs are negative. In this sense one might define the thermal energy as dE and the heat as dq. However, in common usage I don't think that distinction is made.

Vince Calder

There is no difference between "heat" and "thermal energy." They are synonymous. Both refer to the net energy that is transferred form a hot object to a colder one solely as a result of the temperature difference between them.

The word "thermal" in "thermal energy" is used to differentiate this type of energy from other types, for example, kinetic energy, potential energy, etc.

Heat is a more familiar term. It has historically been used to refer to that invisible "flow" that leaves us with the sensation of warmth. It was later established that heat was a form of energy, and the expression "thermal energy" was used to differentiate it from other forms of energy as stated above.


Ali Khounsary, Ph.D.
Advanced Photon Source
Argonne National Laboratory

Hi, Neil

Over zero degrees Kelvin, there is movement. The temperature is a measure of this kinetic energy, called thermal energy.

If two bodies with different temperatures are brought together, than the movement of one body will influence the movement of the other one and - after a period of time - both bodies will be at the same level movement. Lord Kelvin pointed out the direction of this flow of energy ( from the body with the highest to the body with the lowest temperature ). This flow of energy between two bodies at different energy is called "heat". A body alone, considered as an unity, has no "heat" : has thermal energy.

Best regards

Alcir Grohmann

Click here to return to the General Topics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory